New book explores fear of Black consciousness—and who fears it

Fear of Black Consciousness. The title of Lewis R. Gordon’s most recent book raises two questions. What is Black consciousness, and who fears it? The author answers these questions in two major interrelated movements. First, he explores the characteristics and qualities of “white consciousness,” the collective thought patterns that dominate in anti-black societies like the U.S. Consciousness is not an equation of the identity of individuals or communities with an abstract idea of how they think. Rather, it is a result and function of the historical development of how people collectively come to see the world and, above all, to recognize that they are seeing the world that way and why.

In the second movement of the book, Gordon complicates this definition by distinguishing between black consciousness and Black consciousness. The former is closely connected to the experience of being “black in an anti-black society.” The latter involves the collective political orientation toward transcending that oppressive experience in ways that uplift the whole community.

To illustrate the qualities of Black consciousness, Gordon explores examples in three movies: Get Out, Black Panther, and Sorry to Bother You. He devotes a chapter to insights on the “blues.” In his discussion of popular culture, Gordon draws on a deep and broad knowledge of mythologies, languages, and histories.

Gordon’s tender and eye-opening reflections on Frederick Douglass’s biographical writings are, in my opinion, the highlight of this book.

While his philosophical reflections on these cultural materials drive the book’s thesis, it is the opening movement of the book that answers the question Who fears Black consciousness? In his study of the contours and content of white consciousness, Gordon expands on the meaning of what W.E.B. Du Bois, in Black Reconstruction in America, called the “psychological wage of whiteness.” There are four psycho-pathological conditions of white consciousness: neurosis, narcissism, egotism, and pleonexia.

These conditions are a part of what Gordon calls Euro-modern capitalism and imperialism, which invented racial concepts and white supremacy, and did so, specifically, to motivate and justify world conquest.

Before you dismiss these ideas by personalizing this historical analysis to say Gordon is calling white people “crazy,” please recall that these forms of psychoanalysis of modern, capitalist, and Western (North American and European) cultures, societies, and civilizations are not new. The identification of them with specific cultural and ethnic formations, however, is.

Consider, for example, how conservative historian Christopher Lasch described the U.S. as a “culture of narcissism,” or how the Hollywood Western normalized the indiscriminate, mass killing of Indigenous people. Gordon never references Lasch or cowboy movies, but his point is that such stories never name the whiteness of the people they are describing. They hide—in plain sight—the fact that the “dominant culture” in the U.S. is white. It is a culture governed by a white consciousness. Powerful white people—through the institutions which they control—created, cultivated, and reproduced this consciousness. Powerless whites were attracted to this consciousness because it offered them forms of power, or what Gordon calls a “license” to harm Black people and gloat over their plight.

Narcissistic personality disorder, Gordon notes, is an exaggerated sense of self-importance. The narcissist adopts an inflated idea of their achievements. They become preoccupied with fantasies of power and domination, are arrogant, boastful, conceited. An image of the orange-haired former guy just popped into your head. Narcissists get angry when criticized or when shown to be less competent than they imagine; they translate their fantasy of power and success into laziness, jealousy, and competition. Oversensitive, they suffer from nagging imperfections, insecurity, shame, and vulnerability.

Neurotic behaviors include what Gordon calls “bad faith” denials of reality. Evidence means nothing while persisting in beliefs simply for the sake of winning an argument or holding onto a view of reality that comforts their ego. Egotism is a pathological condition that denies the relationality of events, humans, and identities. It is the drive for purity and the exclusion or elimination of difference, and is reflected in racial theories, Eurocentrism, and insidious individualism. Each of these disorders drives fear of guilt about the collective responsibility of whites for racist anti-Blackness. Guilt is “aggression turned inward,” Gordon writes. We see the fear of it in the white supremacist drive to ban Critical Race Theory. The refusal to take responsibility for the sources of guilt stems from the denial of the reality of, in this case, racist aggression. It is explicitly an attempt to redirect that aggression away from the self back into the social realm where whites can use it to target with impunity Black, Brown, and Indigenous people.

Each of these pathologies relates to and underlines pleonexia, the unquenchable greed for everything, to control, dominate, and own everything. Gordon explores the themes of Jordan Peele’s horror/sci-fi thriller Get Out to show how this pathology works. But the armed invasion of capitol buildings, appropriation of non-white cultures for entertainment, the insistence that university admission slots belong to whites, legal license to run over protesters who object to racist police killings, or the attempt to control political narratives through banning Critical Race Theory are equally useful examples. These conditions are evident in voter suppression campaigns that rest on the delusion that non-white voters can’t possibly be legitimate voters unless the elected officials and policies they support remain in the minority. The Tea Party and its subsequent offshoots are representative examples here.

Gordon’s analysis should not be understood as a psychoanalytic explanation for racism or capitalism. As the eminent North American-based scholar on the ideas of psychiatrist and anti-colonial fighter Frantz Fanon and a philosopher of phenomenology, Gordon frequently explores and reflects on the relationship of psychoanalytical categories to systems of oppression. He is careful to link consciousness to historical process, social relations of production, and political realities in which contending forces fight either for a reactionary, lost world of the past or a progressive, collective world that recognizes its responsibility to the people of the past, present and future.

Fear of Black Consciousness deserves to be carefully studied. While it occasionally reads like an academic philosophy text, most of it is deeply engaging and captivating. Readers might work through the book in discussion groups to deepen their understanding. In addition to his searing critique of white supremacy, Gordon offers several worthy challenges to Marxist theory that cannot be addressed in this review but which need consideration. The author has long inhabited right-wing watchlists of “dangerous” professors for, by now, obvious reasons, and is an ally of the revolutionary struggle for human freedom.

Lewis R. Gordon
Fear of Black Consciousness
New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2021
288 pp.
ISBN: 9780374159023


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).