Giving race experts a Lasching

America's twin obsessions with race and therapy have proved 'nothing short of a disaster', argues author Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘How did we get from demands for racial integration and social equality in the 1960s to today’s stifling racial etiquette, where there’s more angst and awkwardness than ever about the racial divide? That’s what I want to know.’

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, professor of history at Syracuse University in New York, has upset ‘more than a few people’ with her new book Race Experts – where she traces the USA’s ‘journey’ from civil rights demands in the 1960s to today’s view of racism as a problem of ‘interpersonal behaviour in need of therapeutic intervention’, rather than a ‘social force in need of social change’. ‘I’ve had mostly positive feedback about the book’, says Lasch-Quinn, ‘but others aren’t so happy. My subtitle [‘How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution’] is probably enough to annoy just about the entire therapy industry.’

Race Experts follows the development of America’s ‘relationship with race and racism’ from the 1960s, when Lasch-Quinn remembers being taken by her parents to protest for ‘social equality for all’, to the separatist demands of black militants in the 1970s, to the ‘near refusal to discuss race’ in the 1980s, to today – where there is ‘much more dialogue, much more willingness to talk about all matters racial’. Surely that’s a good thing – more openness about an issue that has blighted US society for decades? It would be, says Lasch-Quinn, if the race debate hadn’t met with the ‘politics of therapy’ to create ‘a new and dangerous racial divisiveness’.

For Lasch-Quinn, the ‘greatest tragedy’ of the US civil rights movement, what she calls ‘that positive moment in American politics’, was its failure to achieve its ambitious ends – ‘a democratic nation that could transcend racial differences, alongside a new, progressive and humane social order’. ‘Don’t get me wrong’, says Lasch-Quinn. ‘The civil rights protests had much success. They brought a lot that was wrong in American society to an end, including racial segregation and oppression, helping to dismantle the legal apparatus that stood in the way of black Americans playing a full role in society. There’s a lot to thank the civil rights protesters for.’

But according to Lasch-Quinn, it was when the civil rights movement had what she calls a ‘run-in with the therapeutic sensibility of the mid-1960s’ that today’s new racial etiquette and divisiveness was born. ‘Somewhere along the line’, says Lasch-Quinn, ‘the universalism of the civil rights movement gave way to the divisiveness of identity politics and the black identity movement. It was no longer about making everybody equal on the basis of true egalitarianism and a universal outlook, but became about saying “I’m different, you’re different, so let’s just manage those differences and we’ll be happy”. That’s where things started to go wrong, and that’s the part that has lasted to today.’

Lasch-Quinn builds on the work of her late father, influential US thinker Christopher Lasch, who wrote about therapy and what he famously called the ‘culture of narcissism’ throughout the 1960s and 70s (1). According to Lasch-Quinn, the 1960s’ ‘therapeutic sensibility’ – with its premium on ‘individual identity, emotional expression, and an immediate, superficial sense of wellbeing’ – has now become the ‘dominant political theme of the new millennium’. ‘Ours is the age of therapy’, she says, ‘with its belief that you can’t change the world, only the self. So the race question has become one of individual behaviour and attitudes rather than a question of society and how it treats people – it has moved away from being about changing society and achieving the universal to trying to change individuals and focusing on the personal. And that is nothing short of a disaster’.

This is the crux of Lasch-Quinn’s book – the unholy alliance between the politics of therapy and the politics of race. In the new therapeutic America, her biggest bugbear is the self-selected ‘race experts’ – the ‘army’ of counsellors, educationalists, diversity trainers and etiquette experts who have taken it upon themselves to re-educate citizens about correct language, correct behaviour and correct attitudes in all matters racial, everywhere from the workplace to school classrooms, from universities to other political and cultural institutions. According to Race Experts, ‘A 1992 study found that approximately 65 percent of major American companies conducted diversity training, and in a 1995 survey of the top Fortune 50 corporations…70 percent of the companies reported that they had already initiated a formal diversity management programme and another 16 percent expressed their intention to do so’.

Lasch-Quinn writes: ‘Out of the maelstrom of the 1960s rose an army of race experts whose ministrations unintentionally helped prolong old racial tensions and foster new misunderstandings and anxieties.’ So it is the professional anti-racists who have actually exacerbated racial divisions?

‘Yes’, says Lasch-Quinn. ‘Though the point I make in my book is that they are not doing it intentionally – it’s not some kind of bizarre conspiracy to keep racism alive. But the way they understand race has actually created a new racial etiquette, an etiquette as rigid as any that existed under old-fashioned white supremacy in pre-civil rights America.’

Lasch-Quinn stresses that the new view of race is not just an academic discussion, but one which has real consequences for how people see and relate to others. ‘Today’s race experts see the problem between the races as a result of individual behaviour’, says Lasch-Quinn, ‘which means their solutions are at that level, too. The assumption is that whites are inherently racist, even if they don’t know it – and blacks have inferiority complexes, even if they feel tough and confident. So the experts who focus their attention on whites are interested in rooting out benighted mental habits of racism, as reflected in white people’s incorrect behaviour towards blacks. And the experts who focus on blacks are interested in combating black people’s “internalised oppression” by challenging their benighted mental habits of racial inferiority, as expressed in their low self-esteem.’

She continues: ‘The whole thing is based on stereotypes, roles that people are expected to fulfil, and those who claim not to are probably just in denial. The so-called “experts” have created a new division between the races based on what they presume to be their ways of thinking and feeling.’

According to Lasch-Quinn, this personal/individual view of ‘racial relationships’ permeates through American society, and is now the accepted view of race in politics, public discussion and popular culture. This racial view, she argues, is insulting, assuming that people cannot live together without the helping hand of race and diversity experts; it panders to sensitivity, allowing people to dress up faults and failings as being the result of their racial ‘issues’; and it captures US society’s inability to integrate people, instead creating notions of ‘difference’ and ‘diversity’.

‘I certainly find today’s discussions about race insulting’, says Lasch-Quinn. ‘There is an idea inherent within them that we ordinary folk cannot manage relationships for ourselves and need some third party expert to help us out. Such are our in-built racial ways of thinking that we cannot get on with our fellow citizens without being educated in the correct ways of behaving and talking. For the race experts, by contrast, correct attitudes on race are self-evident and all that is required is the best and most effective technique for instilling those attitudes in the minds of the people, who they assume to be pretty much stupid and backward-looking.’

The therapeutic view of race also has also had a distorting impact on public debate more broadly, creating what Lasch-Quinn calls ‘hypersensitivity’ – ‘a world of victims and victimisers, a world in perpetual recovery’. ‘When people are told that their problems, their very sense of who they are, stem from the colour of their skin and their relationships with other races, it can make them pretty sensitive’, says Lasch-Quinn. ‘Whites are expected to play the role of the guilt-ridden former oppressor race, while blacks are expected to play the role of victimised, inferiority-feeling slave descendants – and it isn’t surprising that people sometimes play up to those roles when it suits them, or when they are expected to.’

The end result, says Lasch-Quinn, is a sometimes ‘hysterical’ atmosphere around the issue of race – as glimpsed in the recent debate about black students and the subjects they study at university. A leading US academic caused a stir when he observed in December 2001 that black students seem to go for undemanding courses rather than science subjects, and was accused by some black academics and commentators of being racist. ‘There was a university-wide meeting, with black students sometimes weeping about this supposedly racist incident’, says Lasch-Quinn, ‘while some white students expressed their remorse and feelings of guilt. People were playing their parts – and the whole thing, as often happens these days, became a hypersensitive, hysterical circus’. Sometimes, she says, ‘it seems impossible to have a rational debate’.

But for Lasch-Quinn, perhaps the most destructive part of today’s race debate is its abandonment of any notion of integration, pluralism (‘in its traditional meaning’, she says, ‘of different people having the same rights in a society with a universal outlook’), or universalism . The USA that once called on immigrants to join its nation and fulfil the American dream can now only offer diversity, difference and division – different peoples with different mindsets, different interests and different beliefs who happen to live in the same geographical space. ‘It’s an extraordinary defeat for equality and progress’, says Lasch-Quinn. ‘For humanity, I would argue.’

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution, by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, is published by WW Norton, 2001. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA).

Read on:

The trouble with multiculturalism, by Kenan Malik

British racism – a new original sin, by Frank Furedi

The offended university, by Munira Mirza

spiked-issue: Race

(1) The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, Christopher Lasch, Norton Publishers, 1979. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

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Topics Politics


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