A Socialist’s Guide to Microaggression

An increasing number of social scientists, political thinkers and activists on the left are now explaining White America’s persistent cultural racism in terms of a covert and institutionalized “New Jim Crow.” Famously, Michelle Anderson’s groundbreaking study The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness intends to demonstrate not only the concealed institutionalization of racial discrimination, but also its deceptive language, perhaps best represented by conservative pronouncements of a “Post-racial America.” The fact that many conservatives complain loudly about claims that the civil rights movement failed to end racism in the U.S., suggests a significant political backstory. In this regard, it is revealing that the introduction to Anderson’s book is offered by Dr. Cornel West, a persistent critic of both Barack Obama’s Wall Street servitude as well as his almost complete inattention to the plight of America’s struggling communities of color.

Anderson’s thesis resonates with an appreciation of what has been dubbed “Microaggression Theory” (MT). Microaggression theorists enjoy demonstrating “intersections” between various aspects debilitating linguistic behavior that are based upon racial stereotyping, and their underlying institutions of discrimination. A Google search of “microaggression” indicates much interest among a wide range of scholars and activists on the political left. Microaggression theory is now debated vigorously beyond its implications for covert structural racism. Feminists, the LBGTQ community and socialists continue to provide unique perspectives on the explanatory value and political praxis of microaggression theory. Expectedly, as the explanatory technology of the New Jim Crow and MT is wielded in areas, the racial, conservative griping begins anew.

We cannot pursue an exhaustive review of the areas of contention concerning the explanatory utility of MT, and its political and policy implications. I leave that to interested readers, who are invited to explore the sources for further research and thought included therein. Instead, we will suppose that MT has a demonstrable explanatory value as claimed by its proponents. Hence, we will move on to review of some basic orientations of microaggression theory and examine of how socialists might deploy MT for political outreach from a broader socialist perspective.

The initial reference in 1970 to “microaggression” comes from Harvard professor and psychiatrist Chester Pierce. Pierce’s work centered upon the everyday verbal phrases that are interpreted by Blacks as disparaging. Microaggressions can be subtle, and occur routinely and without an intention to insult. According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a major proponent of MT and Columbia University psychologist, racial microaggressions, for example, are “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them.” Lindsey  Perez Huber and Daniel G. Soloranzo summarize the fundamental characteristics of microaggressions.

They are: (1) verbal and non-verbal assaults directed toward People of Color, often carried out in subtle, automatic or unconscious forms; (2) layered assaults, based on race and its intersections with gender, class, sexuality, language, immigration status, phenotype, accent, or surname; and (3) cumulative assaults that take a psychological, physiological, and academic toll on People of Color.

Thus, Pierce’s theory hopes to identify microaggressions and psychologically explain “resulting” individual experiences of disparagement and social exclusion. However, it also wishes to embed that psychology into a larger explanatory context centering on cultural and institutional racism. Pierce posits that the origins of many physical (high blood pressure) and psychological (traumatic stress) conditions that are of concern to people of color are in part outcomes of life-long experiences with racial microaggressions. Gaining an understanding of microaggressions can help people of color recognize, evaluate, anticipate and dispose of race-inspired microaggressions.

Let’s have a look at an example of racial microaggression.

Theme – Color Blindness: Statements that indicate that a White person does not want to acknowledge race.

Microaggression: “There is only one race, the human race.”

Message: Denying a person of color’s racial/ethnic experiences

The distinction between theme and microaggression is reminiscent of the famous type-token relationship. The theme provides the conceptual context for the microaggression. In this case, “color blindness.” This theme is practiced when racial concepts (whatever they may be) are excluded from the allowable semantics of any discourse of the matter at hand, for whatever reason. Those who celebrate “Post-racial America” enjoy such color-blindness. The token in this example is a speech act that expresses the theme. The “message” as interpreted by the “victim” is that their racial or ethnic experiences are being discounted.

As a further example, the word “thug” is rising in prominence as an alleged racist microaggression. Judy Muller muses over the realization that her use of the word “thug,” just may be microaggressive. Perhaps the common sense of the word as denoting a member of the Mafioso has developed a semantic doppelganger that denotes a Black male. In these days of Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson, new senses can go viral, so to speak, and especially in a heated political atmosphere. Even innocent ignorance becomes suspect within a racially volatile society.

The Personal is the Political

Older readers may recall this catchy little phrase acclaimed by left radical student and second-wave feminist leaders during the late 1960s. It recommends a radical perspective of human relations that appreciates the “intersectionality” of the personal and the political spheres of human existence. This attitude is extended to various “oppressed” classes, including, for example, women, minorities and working families. As Carol Hanisch explains, “One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.”

Microaggression theory claims an empirical explanation of how the personal becomes the political. Not everyone agrees. During 2014, graduate students at UCLA brought their concerns about a hostile and unsafe climate for scholars of color allegedly manifested in a persistent environment of microaggression. An opponent explains that MT is “intellectually vacuous” and that the student’s concerns are better explained as an artifact of competing personal identity politics, ignorance and the poor teaching of faculty. The protest becomes an exercise in narcissistic victimhood. Students are characterized as “…what tort law calls ‘eggshell plaintiffs’—preternaturally fragile individuals injured by the slightest collisions with life.” Hence, MT’s methodologically holistic attitude is challenged by an atomistic and social-Darwinian account, surfing on a wave of ad hominem fallacy.

Socialists who employ MT for political outreach should to keep in mind that some, and perhaps many, people may not ascribe to methodologically holistic explanations. Since socialist thought intends to explain the social relations of capitalism, any surrender to the atomistic attitude will divert debate from the intersectional and holistic orientation of MT, and make more difficult fashioning a broader socialist explanation that is compatible with MT.

Causes Cause Causes

Just as socialism views capitalist social relations as the functional of manifestations capitalist exploitation, MT looks at the world of linguistic discrimination functionally. Functional explanations involve what things do, not necessarily what they are “designed” to do. I own a hammer that is designed to drive nails. If I place that hammer on a stack of SPUSA fliers to keep them from blowing away in the wind, the hammer now functions in this circumstance as a paperweight, although its designer intended it to be used to drive nails.

Functional explanation speaks of systems needing to be maintained in a state of good working order, and employing functional items having effects that bring about and maintain the needed states. Like MT, Marxian analysis is also functional. It speaks of a system of capital that requires continual accumulation and that employs a wide range of functional items (for example, accumulation through dispossession, union busting and tax evasion) whose effects maintain the required unceasing accumulation. The key for socialists is to find convincing ways to fashion an explanation of microaggressions (MAs) that uses a “second-order” functionalism that couches explanations of MAs into a “higher-level” socialist analysis. To explain, for example, white supremacist (WS) MAs as a phenomenon of capitalist social relations, WS itself needs to be placed into a broader socialist functional account.

Those opposed to MT see the effort as empty of empirical content, specious, fraudulent, left-political, inept and fundamentally narcissistic exercise in “victimization.” These charges arise from two areas of concerns. The first involves familiar objections to functional explanation in the social sciences. Functional explanations involve what functional items do, not what they are. If I place a hammer on a stack of fliers to keep them from blowing away in the wind, the hammer functions in the circumstances as a paper weight, although it remains physically a hammer.

Opponents to MT raise important questions concerning the explanatory appropriateness of functional explanation. MA explanations treat varied and chaotic situations, invoke a nuanced taxonomy of MA types (“microinsults” and “microinvalidations,” for example), cite various observational manifestations (speech or a prevailing ideology) and the many ways items take on functions because multiple functional items are often invoked. Questions include: Are the functions cited in MT causally explanatory? Are the causal interactions of various functional entities testable? Is there evidence adequate for the proposed functional explanation for MAs? Are functional explanations “falsifiable?” That is, is the selection of functional entities (speech, institutionalization) value laden with preconceptions concerning what “proper functioning” of those items are? How are relative causal potencies accounted for, and how are some potential causes excluded from consideration? What about alternative causal theories?

MT offers replies to these questions, but we need not rehearse those here. For our purposes, it suffices to note that the political conservatives opposed to MT offer Occam’s Razor. They claim that MT is far too complex and speculative to be the right theory. They offer a “simpler” and more “common sense” hypothesis and crypto-conspiracy theory concerning overly sensitive and narcissistic adolescents, and the ACLU.

MT is said to be empty of content and specious because it fails to adequately specify what MAs are. MA proponents cite speech acts, public signage, vending machines, institutionalized segregation and patriarchy as examples of MA. Opponents are quick to charge that the explananda (what is being explained) of microaggression theory are not sufficiently explicit to support a valid and consistent empirical theory. Sometimes microaggressions are identified as locutions, while in other instances they become physical objects, social structures or institutions. This charge is often highlighted with putatively egregious examples of incredible MAs, such as Palestinian college students finding MA in soda machines, parts of which were made in Israel. We should mention in this regard, however, that empirical frameworks for microaggression theory have been developed in order to address concerns about the required specificity of explananda. The MT model situationally determines whether something is a MA. Therefore, the diversity, dynamic semantic content and the multiple social contexts of language require a careful explanation of causality. That causality must be focused specifically upon explicitly identified instances of microaggression. Finally, linguistically contradictory utterances can be considered MAs, like “I see you as Black” versus “I don’t see you as Black.” The “critical race theory” upon which racial MT is based is thus dismissed as an “…intellectually vacuous import from law schools…”

MT looks at the world functionally. It explains how systems (capitalism) have needs (profit), and functional items (segregation) that cause initial states (wages too high) to become well-operating final states (profits maximized related to wages) that satisfy those needs. Such talk is common in biology, psychology and the social sciences, so it is no wonder that MT should have such a strong following within these fields.

Critics of MT have many bones to pick with the entire enterprise of functional explanation, in general, and in the social sciences particularly. Again, we cannot venture into detail, but will only mention one matter. Here is a sketch for a socialist functional explanation a la MT regarding a famous MA.

Theme – Color Blindness: Statements that indicate that a White person does not want to acknowledge race

MA: “There is only one race, the human race.”

Message: Denying a person of color’s racial/ethnic experiences

A corresponding functional explanation would be:

1.  White Supremacy (WS) (system) requires that all races other than Caucasian be socially, culturally politically subordinated (state) in order to maintain political control.

2.  The good operation of WS requires the demeaning (oppression) of non-whites (function).

3.  WS employs thematically identifiable MRs (cause) to demean non-whites (functional item).

4. Linguistic Institutionalization: MA “catch phrases” within the common language (functional item)

5.  Microaggression: Target feels excluded (testimonial of a behavior) because of a denial of a person of color’s racial/ethnic experiences (Final state)

Hume Fumes

The Scottish philosopher David Hume, in his A Treatise of Human Nature, reminds us of a pesky problem concerning moral reasoning. That is that assertions concerning what a person thinks they ought to do are not validly deductible from any set of exclusively factual statements about the world. While “Hume’s Law” does not come without dispute, it nevertheless provides a warning about sloppy thinking regarding the moral and political implications of microaggression theory. Assuming MT has a sufficient measure of empirical support for functional explanations of MA, there remains for socialist activists the additional and slippery task of fashioning an argument from statements about facts to statements about both personal and collective moral behavior and political practice.

For example, recall that Pierce’s theory admits two central facts. One comprises the individual reports from Blacks that MAs produce experiences of disparagement and social exclusion. The other identifies the debilitating long-term physical and psychological effects of exposure to MAs. The data for the former are results from testimonials collected from well-controlled surveys taken from focus groups. The latter are medical findings concerning actual conditions that themselves are explained with respect to a chronic exposure to MAs. Among Blacks, MAs significantly produce discomfort, and such discomforts over time significantly lead to chronic maladies.

Now, Blacks and others may, based upon a variety of moral considerations, conclude from these facts that MAs should be recognized. However, there is nothing particularly socialistic about such benevolence. What socialism brings to the moral table are just those reasons required to connect the facts of MAs to the maintenance of white supremacy (in good working order) which itself represents a goal state that plays a functional role within capitalism (and to keep it in good working order). Bigotry can defeat the development of that worker solidarity required for socialistic revolutionary change, and it routinely figures in justifications for military adventures intended to dispossess nations of their natural resources. For the socialist critique, the reasons that “justify” moral action concerning MAs must ultimately connect to reasons that guide the overarching socialist revolutionary political enterprise.



J. Richard Marra

lives in Connecticut. He received his Doctoral degree from Cornell University in 1977, majoring in Musical Composition and the History of Music Theory. While on the Faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, he completed graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, majoring in the Philosophy of Science. He is a member of the Socialist Party USA, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Philosophy of Science Association. His articles have also appeared on the websites of the Secular Buddhist Association and The Hampton Institute. He is a 2014 recipient of the SPUSA's Eugene V. Debs Award. To read other essays by J. Richard Marra, please visit https://sites.google.com/site/thoughtsandthingsjrichardmarra/.

2 thoughts on “A Socialist’s Guide to Microaggression

  • February 9, 2016 at 11:35 am

    “The protest becomes an exercise in narcissistic victimhood.”

    Well, yes.

    While there may be great dollops of relevant truth contained within it, “microaggression theory” as some sort of prescription for functional politics is quite obviously self-indulgent and absurd. Only those deeply ensconced and pampered by an academic institution could possibly see any utility in this idea, and it is rather frustrating to see so many bright, committed young people accepting it as dogma.

    Socialists used to understand that human inter-relations would become truly equitable only as the economic underpinnings of injustice are extinguished. There’s no white supremacy possible in a socialist society — not because the thought police eliminate it, but because the economic and cultural mechanics would no longer give rise to it.

    If the struggle for socialism has been reduced to pedantic abstractions like this — as if convincing a critical mass of privileged white liberals to abridge their speech could have any appreciable effect on fundamental property relations or the power of the working classes — prospects for revolution are slim indeed. And rendering individuals of color — especially those privileged enough to obtain tertiary liberal arts education — into thin-skinned, victimized ineffectuals hardly bodes well for the emergence of a revolutionary political class.

    I must admit that the writing is excellent, the thinking crisp and clear. It utterly fails, however, to persuade.

    • September 29, 2016 at 12:04 pm

      Reply from the Author: I appreciate that some readers of my article, as it appears within an issue of The Socialist that focuses upon microaggression, would think that I am claiming that microaggression theory (MT) adequately explains microaggression and provides a basis for the empirical corroboration of its central hypotheses. I should point out that my essay does not do so, and I can assure you that there was no such intention. I wrote the article because some, indeed perhaps many, of our readers are unfamiliar with microaggression theory, and they deserve an the most unbiased explication that I could manage. I would like to respond to your comment

      First, the initial paragraph exemplifies a routine criticism of MT that is common in right-wing political complaints about the theory. These complaints generally indulge in an ad hominem fallacy. The reference to a “pampered” academia and to MT as a “dogma” represents a common example. In this context, the ad hominem also represents what is sometimes called the “Political Correctness” fallacy. This problem persists throughout the comment. In addition, to offer a generalization about the set of people who would be convinced of the empirical value of microaggression theory flies in the face of the fact that many people, outside those who participated in the Roosevelt (RMAS) research (http://www.gjcpp.org/en/resource.php?issue=8&resource=26) exhibit just the kinds of behavior that is corroborated by that study.

      The second paragraph suffers from the employment of a questionable cause fallacy (cum hoc ergo propter hoc). In this case, it is claimed that capitalism is the sole cause of racism. Outside of its naive mono-causality, it also equates coincidence with causality. It is incorrect to claim from that fact that within capitalist societies there is racism, that capitalism causes racism. The fact that racism occurs both historically and currently outside of capitalist societies provides a sufficient counterexample for the claim. Racism in capitalist countries might be explained alternatively with respect to capitalism’s exploitation of racism, rather than the cause of its existence. Also, there remains significant racism in Cuba, which is a socialist state.

      I too have some concerns about MT which I chose not to address in my essay, for the reasons I expressed earlier. These center, in part, upon two problems that are of general concern to social scientists when formulating hypotheses. The first involves what constitutes a scientifically adequate functional explanation of social relations. This issue is too complex for me to explain here. Basically, it involves how functional explanation might be fashioned so as to avoid, for example, logical regression and “just so” stories about the existence of putatively functional items. In my experience, I have seen some pretty far fetched appeals within the general public discourse (read “the Internet”) to microaggression that fail in these two regards. My second concern involves what is sometime called “explanandum drift.” An explanandum is simply that which is to be explained. For example, the feelings Black folks have when they hear a Black person referred to as a “thug” would be an explanandum. The problem with some explanations of instances of microaggression is it remain obscure whether the explanandum is the feeling of derogation, the behavior of perpetrators or the social relations of oppression. So for me, the concerns do not reside in some putative psychological disposition of those who make claims about microaggression, but with the logic of their explanation. In this way, I have at least some confidence that my concerns are not infected by fallacy.

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