Frank S. Hong | Racism and Its Mutations in 2020

By Frank S. Hong*

The concept of racism is a vector. Its weight is measured in history, and its direction in real time. The edifice of the United States of America at its founding made no mention of race. The founding fathers had a powerful capacity of discounting “aberrations”. They saw “all [white] men” were created equal in their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Students at Yale, to their horror, realized that their dorm buildings were named after slave owners and demanded removal of those tainted names. But do they really have to delve into the archives to face racism in their neighborhood? The concept of racism finds its maximum efficacy in directing at the racism of one’s own time. This isn’t easy. As Frantz Fanon forewarned: “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.”1 Homi K. Bhabha found this line one of Fanon’s most enigmatic and inspiring pronouncements in his Foreword to The Wretched of the Earth.2

What is “relative opacity”? Take White House counselor Kellyanne Conway as an example. “This is COVID-19, not COVID-1, folks,” Conway said in her live interview on Fox News on April 16, 2020. “You would think that people charged with the World Health Organization facts and figures would be on top of that.”3 Putting aside her attempt of scapegoating the WHO and her stunning ignorance while the nation was deep into the COVID-19 crisis, she did reveal a rational way of seeing the world. Presumably leveraging her real-life experience in Windows 1.0 all the way to Windows 10, she surmised that COVID-19 must have meant the 19th iteration of the disease. Her ignorance was deplorable, but her cognitive approach, i.e. using a little abstract framework, albeit a mistaken one, to assimilate her new experience, was rational. She unduly gave herself and her nation an opacity, or a blunder, rather, as a result of her hubris and laziness. Not all opacities can be seen through so easily. The domino, the white plastic bottle touted by Collin Powell at the UN (Feb 5th 2003), the SPVs off the balance sheets of Enron, the toxicity of tranches of mortgage debt instruments with AAA ratings, the financial destruction unleased by the fancy named Quantitative Easing … are on the scale of relative opacity.

To understand the challenge in calling out racism in real time, we must go back to the roots beneath the family resemblance of racism, orientalism and colonialism, which initially had nothing to do with races or skin colors. The roots lie in a mode of abstraction that filters out humanity, namely, by way of an example, where Marx saw “human”, Gary Becker only saw “capital”, as noted by Professor Etienne Balibar at the seminar on “Reading Capital”, part of Critique 13/13 this year.4

We need to trace this virus in abstraction further back with a little help from Max Weber. Weber stayed away from a simplistic causal model of how capitalism rose in certain parts of Europe. Instead, he repeatedly pointed at “elective affinity” between certain streams of the Protestant spirit and the mode of thinking or frame of mind undergirding modern capitalism.5 As noted by Weber, capitalism cannot function without certain degree of calculability and predictability in science, accounting, law and bureaucracy. For the western mind, abstraction is the reason, and reason exerts its power by way of abstraction. Abstraction is, by definition, cold and ruthless. If a body of rules warms to myriad circumstances, it loses the potency of abstraction. As Weber put it, “the peculiarly professional, legalistic, and abstract approach to law in the modern sense is possible only in the measure that the law is formal in character. In so far as the absolute formalism of classification according to ‘sense-data characteristics’ prevails, it exhausts itself in casuistry.”6

In the last 500 years or so, Europeans have perfected the “formal rationality”, to use Weber’s concept, in engineering, law, bureaucracy etc., which helps constituting the apparatus of world domination. The power of such domination as we experience daily in racial relationship, international relationship, domestic wealth distribution etc. comes from that privileged epistemological position. Poetic power notwithstanding, the phenomenology in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil or Black Skin, White Masks lacks firepower at the level of epistemology. The authors’ fight against racisms and colonialism became scattered and often tragic skirmishes of “movement”. A war of “position” as hoped by Anthony Gramsci was not possible until Gilles Deleuze brought in his intellectual firepower. Deleuze’s war was a nomad’s war of movement against the fixed position, so much more profound than Gramsci could have ever imagined.

“I saw myself as taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous. It was really important for it to be his own child, because the author had to actually say all I had him saying. But the child was bound to be monstrous too, because it resulted from all sorts of shifting, slipping, dislocations, and hidden emissions that I really enjoyed,” declared Deleuze.7 The target of Deleuze’s attack was “State Philosophy”,8 the representational abstraction model that privileges an identical thinking subject in the perpetual pursuit of the identity between subject and object.9 Adorno ended up in despair and exhaustion after his heavy lifting in Philosophy – seeking to overcome the dualism of subject and object by the so-called negative dialectic.10 Deleuze joyfully declared that he detested nothing more than Hegelianism and dialectics.11 Deleuze’s process philosophy brought to bear on “the Course of Human Events”, the very first, but the least noticed phrase in the Declaration of Independence.

The very institution of mass incarceration, the growing homeless population after 40 years of essentially inconsequential efforts of relief and the sickening death rate of African Americans over Covid-19 are the monstrous children Deleuze would have recognized. Fanon already saw this coming, “Two centuries ago, a former European colony took it into its head to catch up with Europe. It has been so successful that the United States of America has become a monster where the flaws, sickness, and inhumanity of Europe have reached frightening proportions.”12 Deleuze’s enormous contribution lies in providing an alternative epistemology that allows us to mount a frontal attack on the State Philosophy and free us from “relative opacity” once and for all. Sartre would have referred to the above enumerated monstrous children as examples of boomerang.13 But Deleuze rejected the long arc of dialectics favored by Sartre. Instead, Deleuze plumbed the basement to observe emissions, leaks and lines of flights: the master’s sperms flowing into Sally Heming’s body; the micropolitics that produced President Trump, or fascism inside those who readily claim antifascism on the molar level.14 As Deleuze predicted, “a society is defined by its lines of flight”,15 like the video footage of Joe Biden’s bowing to a Chinese man in Trump’s reelection campaign ads. The Chinese man turned out to be Gary Locke, formerly Governor of Washington. The error is only recognizable at the molar level. But it is the sublimated resonance of the image that really matters in this fine game practiced in the name of democracy.

Deleuze worked out the full potential of Weber’s insight behind his metaphor of “elective affinity”. The same process of becoming that explained the rise of capitalism fueled by Puritans’ “vocational calling” also explains the mutations of “Christian asceticism … in renouncing the world, however, had assisted religion, through the cloister, to dominate the world.”16 In modern time, David Scott FitzGerald & David Cook-Martin’s Culling the Masses, based on their detailed study of the evolution of immigration laws in six American nations, presents a compelling case on the “elective affinity” between liberalism and racism.17 Their theoretical case would be much stronger if they borrow the fire power of Deleuze’s “lines of flight”, which is much more grounded metaphysically than the ad hoc metaphor of “elective affinity”.

State Philosophy still calls shots from the height of the privileged epistemological position, albeit with a weakened voice. “God has not been preparing the English speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-administration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns…. He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples,” stated Senator Albert Beveridge, a historian and intellectual leader at the time when the United States sought to annex the Philippines.18 A few days ago, Senator Thomas Cotton said Chinese students should be allowed “to come here and study Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America … They don’t need to learn quantum computing and artificial intelligence from America.” Progress has been made in that Cotton acknowledged the Chinese had the ability to study science, but “the educated ignorance of white schools” (W. E. B. Du Bois) is obviously alive and well. This “socially sanctioned ignorance” goes a long way, as Lorraine Code masterfully put forth in her analysis of George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda and James Mill’s History of British India. “Mill celebrates, takes pride in his ignorance of daily life in India, claiming it allows him to produce a supremely objective history.”19 To borrow Code’s phrases, “socially embedded ignorance” holds tenaciously against non-conforming facts from other countries in the fight against Covid-19; “it is intransigently entrenched, sedimented, ossified – requiring more than mere empirical counterexamples to dislodge it. It claims the power to discount ‘aberration’ from its dogmatic certainty: indeed, ironically, socially sanctioned ignorance carries an air of certainty even more stubborn than knowledge.”20 That stubborn ignorance “is a blind giant who, let him but wax unbound, would make it a sport to seize the pillars that hold up the long-wrought fabric of human good, and turn all places of joy dark as a buried Babylon,”21 or America in 2020 where over 60,000 people have died of Covid-19.

*Columbia Law School, LL.M. 2020




  • Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, (New York: Grove Press, 2004), at 145
  • at xxxi
  • Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by and introduced by Stephen Kalberg, The Revised 1920 Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), at 81-82; 109
  • Max Weber, Economy & Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, Vol. 2, (University of California Press, 1978), at 657
  • Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations 1972-1990, translated by Martin Joughin, (Columbia University Press, 1995), at 6
  • Brian Massumi, Translator’s Foreword: Pleasures of Philosophy, in Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated and foreword by Brian Massumi, (University of Minnesota Press, 1987), at xi
  • Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, translated by Paul Patton, (Columbia University Press,1994), at 265
  • See
  • Deleuze, negotiation, at 6
  • Fanon, supra note 1, at 236
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, in Preface to The Wretched of the Earth, supra note 1, at lviii
  • Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, supra note 8, at 215
  • at 216
  • Weber, supra note 5, at 157
  • David Scott FitzGerald & David Cook-Martin, Culling the masses: the democratic origins of racist immigration policy in the Americas, (Harvard University Press, 2014)
  • Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), Cf. Stephen T. Asma, Metaphors of Race: Theoretical Presuppositions behind Racism Source: American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Jan., 1995), 13-29, at 18
  • Lorraine Code, The Power of Ignorance, Philosophical Papers, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Nov. 2004), 291-308, at 294
  • Id. at 306
  • George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, [1876] (New York: Random House Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2002) at 202, Code, supra note 19, at 291