Against Civility: The Hidden Racism in Our Obsession with Civility (Paperback)
The first history of racial injustice to examine how civility and white supremacy are linked, and a call for citizens who care about social justice to abandon civility and practice civic radicalism
The idea and practice of civility has always been wielded to silence dissent, repress political participation, and justify violence upon people of color. Although many progressives today are told that we need to be more polite and thoughtful, less rancorous and angry, when we talk about race in America, civility maintains rather than disrupts racial injustice.
Spanning two hundred years, Zamalin’s accessible blend of intellectual history, political biography, and contemporary political criticism shows that civility has never been neutral in its political uses and impacts. The best way to tackle racial inequality is through “civic radicalism,” an alternative to civility found in the actions of Black radical leaders including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Audre Lorde. Civic radicals shock and provoke people. They name injustice and who is responsible for it. They protest, march, strike, boycott, and mobilize collectively rather than form alliances with those who fundamentally oppose them.
In Against Civility, citizens who care deeply about racial and socioeconomic equality will see that they need to abandon this concept of discreet politeness when it comes to racial justice and instead more fully support disruptive actions and calls for liberation, which have already begun with movements like #MeToo, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and Black Lives Matter.
About the Author
Alex Zamalin is the director of the African American Studies Program and an assistant professor of political science at the University of Detroit Mercy. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Antiracism: An Introduction. His areas of expertise include African American political thought, American politics, and political theory. Zamalin’s essays and reviews have appeared in various edited book collections and in peer-reviewed journals such as New Political Science, Contemporary Political Theory, Political Theory, and Women’s Studies Quarterly.
“Progressives will be galvanized by this urgent and incisive call for a stiffer resistance to the status quo.”
“An impassioned argument for public acts of resistance.”
“Against Civility: The Hidden Racism in Our Obsession with Civility is an amazing book and quickly provides an eye-opening view into why white calling for people to act ‘civil’ has racial undertones. In a mere 136 pages, we are treated to a rich and detailed history lesson in the use of this civility from George Washington to George Floyd.”
—San Francisco Book Review
“Narrator Adam Barr uses a persuasive style to emphasize the core message of this audiobook, which is that calls for civility actually fuel racism, rather than combat it. . . . Barr is an excellent choice for a title that is likely to cause debate—even controversy.”
"Zamalin's brief and blunt critique of failures and successes in the struggle for human rights in the United States calls to readers who care about racial and social justice to commit to a progressive, multiracial democratic movement to fight oppression, end discrimination, and extend economic freedom. Critical reading."
“Monumental . . . A must-read book to help us conceptualize liberation for a well-functioning multiracial democracy.”
—Dorian Warren, president of Community Change
“Zamalin’s Against Civility offers an insightful, cogent analysis of democracy’s racism and decay with scholarship that emphasizes the collective struggle for justice through civic radicalism. Writing against pleasantries that gloss over pandemics of violence and disposability, Zamalin charts the historical, political, and spiritual trajectories of civic radicalism to counter repression. This is vital reading.”
—Joy James, author of Seeking the “Beloved Community”
“How could anything be more appropriate to today’s audacious struggles than this brilliant unmasking of the polite rhetoric of oppression? Zamalin topples a lot of hypocritical statuary.”
—Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles
“At a time of national debate about the history and ongoing reality of American racism, Alex Zamalin reminds us of an important truth: while politeness may be a virtue, speaking out against injustice is the more overriding imperative. This short but powerful book, vigorously and vividly written, is both a capsule account of a long struggle for racial equality too often erased in mainstream narratives and an inspirational call for a new multiracial democracy.”
—Charles W. Mills, author of The Racial Contract
“From opponents of abolitionism in the nineteenth century to BLM counter-protesters in the twenty-first, Zamalin shows how it has often been an insistence on ‘civility’ that ironically justifies and unleashes the gnashing dogs of the Right’s anti-democratic agenda. Who would ever be wary of something as benevolent sounding as ‘civility’? Turns out, we should all be.”
—Matthew Frye Jacobson, author of Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race
“Against Civility powerfully reveals how civil discourse has been weaponized throughout history to undermine antiracism, bolster white supremacy, and oppress marginalized people. Zamalin’s timely call for civic radicalism inspires and educates us all with the stories of freedom fighters, artists, scholars, and activists who disregarded respectability politics to mobilize for human rights and freedoms. Essential reading.”
—Crystal Marie Fleming, PhD, author of How to Be Less Stupid About Race
“Zamalin writes a compelling story of the use and abuse of ‘civility’ and ‘reconciliation’ rhetoric across the broad sweep of US history. From slaveholders like John C. Calhoun to contemporary right-wing politicians like Donald Trump, elite whites figure prominently in this narrative. Whites’ civility framing routinely normalizes white supremacist and other anti-democratic activists but negatively frames black anti-racist protesters by insisting that the latter, who are actually seeking real democracy, are somehow ‘uncivilized.’”
—Joe Feagin, Distinguished Professor at Texas A&M University and author of The White Racial Frame
“Over the past several years, ‘civility’ has become a keyword of sorts, used as a cudgel to promote the idea that respectful dialogue offers the best way through this moment. Against Civility is a refreshing tonic that urges otherwise.”
—Lester Spence, professor of political science and Africana studies, Johns Hopkins
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