Black People Who Oppose Critical Race Theory Are Being Erased | Opinion

Our current moment is often described as a "racial reckoning." In reality, what this often means is that a narrative about Black victimization has gone mainstream. We hear endlessly about systemic racism, white supremacy, the black/white income gap, and police brutality. So powerful an ideology has this narrative become that those of us who pose a credible counter-narrative—black anti-woke writers, for example—frequently find our words being misconstrued in an effort to stanch their impact.

This doesn't happen to everyone who opposes the Critical Social Justice narrative of black victimization. White dissenters are simply called "racist" while many black dissenters are considered tragic victims of internalized racism. But things get ugly when woke Critical Social Justice proponents encounter a certain kind of black person who does not align with their preferred victim narrative and instead emphasizes his or her own individuality or self-regard. Such people present a threat to the woke narrative, since that narrative insists that all black people are victims of white supremacy, meaning anyone who insists on their individuality and their own power proves the falsity of that victim narrative; if the woke narrative were true, such people should not be able to exist.

Which means that when we claim to exist, antiracist woke warriors need to erase us, using a logical fallacy I call "erase and replace." Erase and replace is a combination of the strawman and ad hominem logical fallacies. The move involves taking the argument someone is making and substituting it for one that fits more neatly into the woke victim narrative by specifically targeting the character of the challenger—since it is, in part, their character that is the greatest challenge.

A recent example was telling. In "Stop Calling Me White for Having the Wrong Opinions," Angel Eduardo discussed his ostracism from his black and Dominican peers as a teen and argued that mandating people of color to all have the same values, tastes and beliefs dismisses their individuality and self-regard. "My failure to fit in in high school was painful, but it gifted me with a perspective that I now cherish," writes Eduardo, who ultimately chose to "opt out" of racial and ethnic labeling: "I'm not 'white,' but I'm not 'black' or 'brown,' either. I am human, and I will proudly say so when prompted. I will not toe that ideological line. I refuse it, and I refuse its imposition upon me."

Unfortunately, Eduardo's triumph of the spirit represented a defeat of antiracist Critical Social Justice; after all, a black man who is happy, successful, and fulfilled without embracing victimhood is a formidable threat to the narrative in which systemic racism oppresses all people of color. So Eduardo was "erased and replaced": Instead of engaging with his actual words, antiracists proceeded to misconstrue them—and to misconstrue him.

New York Times writer and Howard University professor Nikole Hannah-Jones' response was a classic in the erase and replace genre: "This was terrible, but seems the appetite is endless for the 'I don't consider myself Black but am mad Black people question my Blackness' 'think' pieces," she wrote on Twitter. "I mean, when you yourself say you are not Black, why are you upset that Black people respect your choice and don't consider you Black either?"

This was terrible, but seems the appetite is endless for the “I don’t consider myself Black but am mad Black people question my Blackness” “think” pieces. pic.twitter.com/8ue0ai3wTB

— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) August 31, 2021

Hannah-Jones' tweet erased the fact that Eduardo's rejection for being too "white" caused his rejection of racial labels, reversing the sequence of events and making Eduardo sound nonsensical and, perhaps more importantly, anti-black. Hannah-Jones erased Eduardo and replaced him with a contrived character too absurd to take seriously.

Sadly, this is just one example of many. Erase and replace was a primary tactic during the infamous debacle at Evergreen State College, where Bret Weinstein, someone who identifies himself as "deeply progressive," was painted as a racist fascist—while students of color who came to his defense and insisted they are not oppressed were ignored and painted as "lost" by student protestors.

You can see erase and replace at work in what happened when Black Lives Matter protestors shouted down Kmele Foster when he tried to defend free speech as a benefit to black people in 2017. "For so many years in this country, and I'm pointing to the 1960s in particular, speech protections were used by minority groups who were fighting for civil rights, and it was essential for them to be able to secure those rights, in order to advocate," Foster said on a panel, before being shouted down by protestors. In other words, for defending black rights, Foster was cast as someone defending white supremacy.

These are just a few of the more high-profile examples of erase and replace; unfortunately, this phenomenon is something that black thinkers who deviate from the antiracist narrative know all too well. And it has happened to me, too.

Years ago, I wrote an essay like Eduardo's that chronicled my social rejection for the crime of inauthentic blackness. In that essay, I made an argument comparable to Eduardo's: Thanks to this rejection, I had resolved to forego racial labels; instead, I argued for a radical individualism based on self-regard. In responding to my work, a prominent rhetoric scholar literally changed my words to make me seem easily refutable and quite pathetic—to prove that blacks attempting to transcend labels suffer from internalized racism.

I believe Eduardo and I were erased and replaced because our individuality as black men threatens the victim narrative; in arguing for a black identity rooted in self-esteem rather than victimhood, in seeing ourselves as having already achieved such an identity, we challenge the very foundation of Critical Social Justice.

And because our challenge to wokeness is rooted in character, the erase and replace tactic builds into its strawman of our arguments an ad hominem fallacy against our character. Because it is a question of character that inadvertently deals too heavy a blow to the victim narrative, the woke simply cannot afford to acknowledge us for who we are, so they instead attack who we aren't.

Instead of engaging with our arguments on the merits, the purpose of erasing and replacing is to forego engagement and damage group standing. Psychologist Wayne Schwartz writes that the purpose of such a tactic is to show "that the perpetrator is not and perhaps never was a member in good standing in the community." Psychologists William Torres' and Raymond Bergner suggest that people willing to degrade those with opposing views feel degraded themselves; "erase and replace" is an attempt to stave off further degradation. Perhaps white supremacy is the target of this character assassination, but intra-group wellness and solidarity take the hit.

Black dissenters are being erased
iStock

Moreover, when a prominent figure in a social justice movement chooses to erase and replace a perceived foe, sympathetic audiences may be motivated to comply. When telling a professor how a scholar of anti-racism erased and replaced me, I was told that this academic was just telling "his truth." Another more prominent professor told me that "everybody does that. It's no big deal." (I can only assume this person did not quite understand that the rendering of my quote was not a misinterpretation, but a disinterpretation—a deliberate tampering with my words.) Both men were white and considered themselves allies of social justice.

When it comes to erasing and replacing, perhaps this should be our primary concern: The fact that people use the "erase and replace" strategy is truly disconcerting, but the fact that it actually works is downright scary.

Of course, no race has a monopoly on character assassination. But it's more unsettling when done among people who seemingly have the same goal: the wellbeing of people of color. So much for racial solidarity.

So what can we do? We can all do a better job of looking into things for ourselves instead of taking another's interpretation as fact, regardless of the person's ethos. We can refrain from erasing and replacing, which, like all intentional logical fallacies, is a sign that someone has no confidence in making a point with sound arguments or facts. Lastly, we can realize that black people are not monolithic; we have so many viewpoints that one person's take, even if considered a leader among black Americans, is just that: one person's take. Ultimately, if we cannot acknowledge people for who they are, then who are we?

Erec Smith is an associate professor of rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania. He is also a co-founder of Free Black Thought and a senior fellow for the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism. His latest book, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment, was published by Lexington Press.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.