It’s hard to get used to hearing that white people are, by definition, racist.

I was first introduced to the idea through Eneale Pickett’s Insert Apparel clothing line, which featured a hoodie that simply read “All White People Are Racist.” At the time I found the statement provocative. My friends and I debated what it was that Mr. Pickett was trying to say; I personally felt that the statement was an artful condemnation of liberal hypocrisy, a call for privileged whites to examine their own relationship to racism.

The second time I heard someone refer to the inherent racism of all white people, the charm of novelty had worn off. By then the concept had, in its most literal incarnation, nestled firmly into the socially liberal orthodoxy. What began as provocative social commentary had congealed into a kind of fundamentalist story about race, one where all whites are incurably infected with the racist pathology, with their only hope being confession and repentance.

Like most fundamentalism, this particular credo suffers from a fatal flaw. All one has to do is imagine just one white person whose racial bona fides are above suspicion to disprove the whole statement. I think of Jim Zwerg, a white man beaten bloody and nearly lynched for his role in desegregating the Southern bus system. If Mr. Zwerg is by virtue of his race doomed to be labeled a racist, then the label itself has lost all relevance. We can’t both indiscriminately label whites as “racist” and maintain the integrity of the word.

Race is built upon a deviously complex system of fictions, designed to disguise the truth that we are all human beings, regardless of skin color, and deserve to be treated as such. American history is peopled with individuals, white or otherwise, who have confronted the fiction of race head-on and worked to make a more equitable society for all. The idea that all white people are racist is merely another fiction, one that does nothing more than feed the self-indulgence of whites seeking to trade their guilty feelings for absolution.

It’s dismaying to witness this particular fiction gaining popularity among self-described leftists, for the idea that certain people are by virtue of their “race” predisposed to anti-social behavior is a major concession to the extreme right. It’s also an unfortunate departure from the kind of critical, structural approach to racism that defined the abolition and civil right movements. The idea that “all white people are racist” merely supplants one facile fiction with another, and that is a poor recipe for progress.

Wilder Deitz