On Charlottesville, Anti-racism and Why Michael Jackson Got it Right
By Greg Scorzo –
Trump, The Far Right, and Public Art
On August 14th, 2017, a political rally happened in Charlottesville North Carolina. The motivation for the rally was the attempted removal of a statue of general Robert E Lee, a war hero on the confederate side of the civil war. The confederate side, for those of you don’t know, is the side that fought against the Americans trying to free slaves in the 1860s.
This Charlottesville rally was called, ‘Unite the Right’ and was organised, in part, by Richard Spencer. Spencer is a spokesperson for what is now called the alt-right. This is a group of non-traditional conservatives who are known for advocating white supremacy and racial segregation. They have a sometimes trollish and sometimes serious obsession with nazi iconography. Some of them are literally neo-nazis, while others are nationalist conservatives and right-wing libertarians who feel whites are given a raw deal in mainstream society.1
The Charlottesville rally consisted of over 1000 alt-right supporters and counter-protesters who eventually came to blows. The alt-right supporters chanted, “Blood and Soil!” while periodically shouting, “You will not Replace us!” There were swastikas and menacing figures carrying big guns. Throughout the rally, not only were punches thrown, but at one point, a horrific act of terrorism was committed. A car, driven by one of the alt-right supporters, ran into a group of counter-protesters. 19 people were injured, and one person was killed.2 Shortly afterwards, there were numerous efforts to crack down on online hate speech. These efforts included Mark Zuckerberg’s promise to remove all violent threats off of Facebook.3 Nationwide, additional confederate statues were taken down, often with the justification of ensuring public safety.4 Even some non-civil war related pieces, such as a statue of Christopher Columbus in San Jose, were the subject of activist campaigns calling for their removal.5
Donald Trump, per usual, was at the centre of controversy. In his first speech immediately addressing the Charlottesville rally, he didn’t specifically single out the alt-right for condemnation. Rather, he condemned the violence and attacks on all sides. In doing so, he suggested there was an equivalence between ‘Unite the Right’ and the people protesting it. Later, he gave a second statement in which he more directly and officially condemned the white racist politics at the rally. But after that, he went back to statements suggesting both sides of the conflict had negative and positive elements. He repeatedly accused the mainstream media of being unfair in its minimal outrage over the violent left-wing groups present at the rally. He emphasised this point, much more than he expressed outrage over the white supremacists in Charlottesville.
None of this was terribly convincing. Even if Trump was right about the presence of trouble makers from the far-left, the majority of the counter-protesters in Charlottesville were not violent, nor were they involved in lefty groups such as Antifa, who actually did punch and beat people at the rally.6 And no, I’m not just saying this because I am a lefty.
Any non-biased observer would have to admit that there was very much not a moral equivalence between the anti-racism protesters, and Spencer’s followers on the streets. And if there were any legitimate concerns that came from the Spencer side regarding free speech, those points could only be given a fair hearing if white nationalism was first quickly and unequivocally condemned by the president. Because Trump showed visible ambivalence over the alt-right, he actually gave the impression that they were a base of support he didn’t wish to offend. He also seemed to suggest that a group of people protesting a public statue of a confederate war hero were somehow a major threat to the preservation of history.
This of course, expresses a misunderstanding of the distinction between public and private works of art. Unlike the exhibition of a private work of art, a public statue is supposed to represent a community’s values. So if a particular community decides it wants alternative values represented in its public art, it’s perfectly fine for an offensive statue to be ripped from the ground and moved somewhere else. And this is true even for statues that aren’t of contentious figures like Robert E Lee. A community could legitimately protest a statue of Bruce Lee. I admittedly would not want to live in such a community, but if they decide Bruce is a dangerous symbol of violence, they have every right to request he be replaced by a Bruce Jenner statue. And still another community has a right to protest that statue, for being of Bruce rather than Caitlyn.
A week after Charlottesville, a non-racist rally supporting free-speech was held in Boston. Unlike Charlottesville, the official organisers of this rally claimed they wanted nothing to do with white supremacy or any variation of the extreme right. The Facebook page linked to the event stated, “We are a coalition of libertarians, progressives, conservatives, and independents and we welcome all individuals and organizations from any political affiliations that are willing to peaceably engage in open dialogue about the threats to, and importance of, free speech and civil liberties.”7
John Medlar, one of the organizers of the rally, told CNN affiliate WCVB, “Contrary to a lot of the rumors out there, the purpose of the rally is to denounce the kind of political violence that we have seen — a sort of rising tide throughout the country, and particularly most recently in Charlottesville.”8
Yet this Boston free-speech rally was repeatedly described as an expression of white supremacy and extreme right politics, by both mainstream media and official organisations denouncing racism.
Lecia Brooks, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, stated on CNN that, “What we’re seeing strategy-wise is what we saw in Charlottesville. The coalition of different white supremacist groups, and that’s what they are, white supremacist organizations, who have come together to position themselves or make it look like they’re victims of free speech or they’re victims of the push for democracy and diversity and inclusion.” She also stated, “They want to wrap themselves in the cloak of free speech so that they can continue to speak out and have people believe that whites in this country are under assault, and that is their strategy.”9
The Anti-Defamation League additionally claimed that the Boston rally was part of the “alt-light” rather than the alt-right. According to the ADL, “The alt-lite, sometimes referred to as the New Right, is a loosely-connected movement whose adherents generally shun white supremacist thinking, but who are in step with the alt right in their hatred of feminists and immigrants, among others. Many within the alt-lite sphere are virulently anti-Muslim; the group abhors everyone on “the left” and traffics in conspiracy theories.” The ADL later went on to say, “Much of the rhetoric used by these individuals is an attempt to undermine social norms and “political correctness” and appeal to classic forms of bigotry, including misogyny and Islamophobia.”10
Even Marty Walsh, the mayor of Boston, echoed these statements, claiming “We don’t need them here. We don’t need that message here. The message should be about unity.” Walsh told reporters, “We don’t need them here spewing that type of hate. We don’t want them here, we don’t need them here, they shouldn’t be here.”11
These reactions are all completely understandable. If you hold a free-speech rally a week after Charlottesville that contains alt-right speakers, there’s a sense in which you are antagonising, rather than persuading, people who are frightened of you. And this event did schedule speakers such as Augustus Invictus, who is both an organizer for ‘Unite the Right’ and a figure known for denying the existence of the holocaust.12 If you schedule a speaker like this in a national climate of fear over a nazi protest, expect to be associated with extreme right politics.
Nonetheless, there’s still another important issue that gets lost in the condemnation of the Boston rally. That issue is the fact that the Boston rally is exactly the sort of thing that would excite free-speech activsts, and with good reason. Augustus Invictus is the perfect speaker to demonstrate how the Boston rally is truly committed to free speech. So is the distasteful timing of the rally. The more trollish and offensive the rally is, the more couragious it is in exemplifying exactly what free-speech is about.
The whole point of free-speech, we should remember, is the idea that a society can only peacefully negotiate its values, if it listens to, rather than suppresses, views it finds morally repugnant. At the moment, there’s nothing mainstream society finds more repugnant than somebody like Augustus Invictus. Although he didn’t actually wind up speaking at the rally, it’s important to note that Invictus was not invited to espouse his views on race or the holocaust. He was invited to speak about the 1st amendment; an amendment which is supposed to protect people (like him) who make ridiculously stupid claims. Inviting someone with sensible views to a free speech rally doesn’t demonstrate a dedication to free-speech, compared to inviting someone whose views are both utterly wrong and mostly despised.
Free-speech after all, isn’t free, if it’s only for people who say things that are sensible or uncontroversial. But media commentators mistook the Boston rally’s commitment to free-speech with a political endorsement of white supremacy. Although this mistake is understandable, it’s still wrong. Using the same flawed logic, one might accuse leftist firebrand Noam Chomsky of endorsing white supremacy. Chomsky, after all, also defended Robert Faurisson’s right to express views denying the existence of the holocaust.13
But apart from this conflation of free speech with the advocacy of said speech, there’s something else quite worrying about both Brooks and the ADL’s statements regarding the Boston rally. Both assume that the contemporary left-wing positions on social issues just are the antithesis of hatred and bigotry. Anything which challenges these positions is white supremacist, by default. The ADL even uses the term ‘alt-light’ as a way of psychologically associating any thought that does not tow the party lines of these left positions, with white supremacy and extreme right politics. Thus, the ADL is ironically guilty of the same vices they think motivate the organizers of the Boston rally.
After all, calling right-wing critics of Feminism “misogynist” without further discussion and argument, is fairly hateful. And calling passionate critics of the left’s stance on Islam “Islamophobic” assumes none of these critics are actually protesting illiberal and sexist practices within Islam. That too is bigotry.
So is equating alt-light nationalism with a hatred of immigrants. Even if such nationalism treats immigrants unfairly, that is still not the same as harbouring a hatred for those immigrants.
In fact, the very idea of an ‘alt-light’ suggests a co-extensiveness between anyone who challenges the progressive social agenda, and the white supremacist alt-right. This is not only a conspiracy theory, but it’s also the 21st century version of how conservatives used to call any activism that was not conservative “communist” during the mid 20th century. To insist that white supremacists and extreme right figures are “hiding behind free speech,” is no different to claiming that the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam were hiding behind the civil rights movement. Even if they were, that does nothing to tarnish the legitimacy of that movement. In a similiar way, white supremacists can’t destroy the legitimacy of free speech rallies. They can, however, make free speech decidedly unpopular.
Trump or The Progressives: Who’s Worse?
While Trump criticised the violent left-wing counter protesters in Charlottesville, he also complained that many of the non-nazi elements in ‘Unite the Right’ had been treated unfairly by the media. But this of course, absolves them of any responsibility for that treatment. If you march alongside militiamen with swastikas, you are very much responsible for being unfairly treated by the media. And Trump, if he is treated unfairly by the media, is largely responsible for that too. You can’t expect to be treated fairly as the President of the United States, if you constantly make uncouth and incendiary remarks. Trump accidentally slanders the few sensible things he stands for, as much as his opponents do.
And although this makes me seem decidedly “establishment,” I think the president has speech obligations the general public does not. A president should be especially sensitive in the language he or she uses. It’s dangerous when a president practically taunts his political opponents, especially when those opponents are such a large portion of a huge country. That’s not good for social cohesion. And politics can’t work, in the absence of social cohesion. It especially can’t work when people hate each other, and what I’m seeing in most political discussions, post Charlottesville, is a lot of hate.
When I use the word ‘hate’ in this context, I don’t just mean racism or calls to violence against certain people. I also mean literal hate for Donald Trump and his supporters. It’s the opposite of the universal love and brotherhood ideology that animated so much of the civil rights movement, during the 60s. Today the American left, and especially the progressive left, feel closer in attitude to Malcolm X than Martin Luther King. They have nothing but sheer and unbridled contempt for their president and his fans.
And it feels like Trump, on some level, enjoys this contempt, like a kid who relishes misbehaving and then being scolded by his teachers; impressing the other naughty children with his antics. This temperament might be admirable in a rock star, but it’s not good for a POTUS. A president, among other things, is a supreme diplomat. A diplomat’s job, in part, is to negotiate, choose one’s words carefully, and persuade others who disagree with him or her. Trump does this job as minimally as his most hysterical opponents on CNBC. And if anything, he has more of a moral obligation to do his job than they do. Failure to do his job is more dangerous.
So yes, I don’t like ‘Unite the Right’, I’m not a massive fan of the Trump presidency, I think it’s ok for a community to protest reactionary public statues, and I also think the Boston free speech rally antagonised those worried about racism against people of color. This is the extent to which, as a lefty, I think all the things I’m supposed to think about Charlottesville and its aftermath. Where I depart from the left is in how I understand the context of Charlottesville. That context is the contemporary racism of modern western culture, especially in the US.
Here, I know I’m supposed to be in total solidarity with the left’s take on racism. I’m supposed to be mobilising with them against what they often say is the biggest threat to racial equality in America; Trump and his alt right fanbase; that new movement of basement dwelling, fascist flirting caucasians who carry tiki torches. But the reality is, I can’t show this solidarity, in good conscience.
Despite his sympathies with it, Trump and his presidency are not the alt-right. And the alt-right, as troubling as it is, is still a relatively small potatoes symptom of something much more powerful, widespread and ubiquitous; something which more effectively exacerbates racial tension and civil unrest: the so-called progressive politics on my side of the political spectrum.
It’s the left’s racism which has the most troubling impact on society. This racism doesn’t come from people dressed in white sheets, burning crosses. This is racism practiced by people who agree with me about health care, welfare, and the legalisation of marijuana. It’s racism I’m constantly told isn’t really racism. But it certainly is, and it’s certainly dangerous.
People who identify as progressives far outnumber any of the piddling little numbers of far-right extremists. So progressivism is not small potatoes. It represents the dominant racism of our time. More depressingly, many on the left who see this racism getting more and more extreme, feel they cannot actually call it out in an honest way. Especially if they are white. Calling out this racism is a sure fire way of being branded a racist yourself. And whenever you are branded a racist, you face financial losses, emotional rejections, and massive amounts of social stigma. Most people are understandably horrified at the thought of being seen as racist, because they abhor racism. Amongst those who actually are racist, very few people actually join overtly racist right-wing movements. It’s far too risky.
But the sad truth is, it is the contemporary progressive left, rather than the alt-right, where most of the racists with cultural and institutional power lie. This chunk of the left, much more so than its critics, has been the side of the political spectrum to effectively normalise racism in the last 5 years. Progressives have made racism look cool and trendy, calling it anti-racism, and subtly threatening anyone who dares point out how much of a rebuke it is to the colour-blind anti-racism of the late 20th century. Unlike the alt-right, the progressive left much more efficiently bullies people for not being racist enough.
Of course, not all lefties are progressives, and a few lefties take a more critical stand against these politics. But among people who vote the same way I do in national elections, people standing up to contemporary progressivism are a tiny minority. If people identify with the left, they see the left as a team it’s important to defend and stick up for. But you should never uncritically side with your team when its being racist.
Of course, none of this means you shouldn’t oppose either modern nazis, or other factions of the alt-right. Nor does it negate either the history of white racism in the United States, or the fact that such racism will probably always exist on some level, regardless of how disapproved of it is by the mainstream. But what’s worrying is the extent to which the left’s racism makes the polar opposite of the left seem attractive. People on the right who are not nazis are finding it preferable to march alongside them, rather then be aligned with left-wing anti-racists. To use a politically incorrect phrase, this is insane.
Aligning oneself with the most hated racists of western civilisation in order to protest either political correctness, or racism against whites, is as sensible as supporting the human extinction project in order to be more environmentally friendly.
But just like standing alongside nazis is bonkers, its also ridiculous to support the progressive establishment, with its arguably much more powerful and insidious racism. This isn’t because mainstream left-wing racism is somehow as bad as right-wing racist extremism. Quite the contrary. The left position on race, for all its flaws, has nothing like either the genocidal rhetoric, or the nasty and violent history of the side that contains neo-nazis.
But here’s the problem: You can’t fight racism without aknowledging and disavowing the racism on your side. If you fight racism with a politics that promotes racial discrimination, racial bigotry, and racial segregation, you are a big hypocrite. And if every time people on your own side question you, you accuse them of being on the side of bigots and racists, that side suddenly seems more reasonable to people who have good reasons to resent you. Even though your racism isn’t as bad as their racism, there’s still a sense in which you’re pushing people over to that side of the political spectrum.
This is why everyone, left or right, should work to create an anti-racist society where people are judged not on the basis of their skin colour, but the content of their character. This idea was historically a left-wing idea. But it’s a left-wing idea that both modern progressives and the mainstream establishment they dominate have turned against. The left-wing racism they’ve replaced it with is unfortunately now just mainstream culture, and this mainstream is the context in which various factions of the right are uniting in opposition.
This is why it is a mistake to think the main threat to anti-racism is either Trump, neo-nazis, or even the alt right. They are merely symptoms of a much more powerful problem: the equating of racism with inequalities of outcome. This idea, particularly in the last ten years, has transformed both popular culture, and the political consciousness of the left.
In Praise of a Left that Sang, Danced, and Appropriated
In order to understand this cultural transformation, we need to remember what things were like, not so long ago.
In 1991, Michael Jackson released a music video called “Black or White.” I remember watching this video when it originally aired, after just having celebrated my 12th birthday. At the time, I thought it was one of the most cringe-worthy things I had ever seen. It was unbearably corny, in part, because the political statement it made seemed so utterly obvious and mundane. The only edgy thing about it was its second half, where the music stops and Michael, for no discernible reason, starts dancing on top of cars and smashing their windows with a crow bar. Because of this sequence, many people speculated that Michael had mental health issues. He also seemed like a massive hypocrite for singing about how skin colour didn’t matter, while using plastic surgeries to appear more and more like a tall Helena Bonham Carter wearing a wet Rick James wig.
Now, in 2017, Michael’s appearance, as well as the window smashing section of his video, are things no one would bat an eyelash over. Today, Michael would get progressive points for being both trans-racial and gender queer. And the smashing of the car windows might be seen as nothing more than an understandable reaction to being in a marginalised group.
But it’s the video’s anodyne political message that would now be seen as deeply reactionary, if not racist. That message says, among other things, that race doesn’t matter. To elevate it’s importance is not a useful way of thinking about individuals, when describing their characteristics in a meaningful way. And refusing to give race such importance, is now the antithesis of the modern progressive’s take on racial politics; a take where race and racial divisions matter very very very very much.
Black or White’s politics of racial unity and colour blind love of humanity are thus suddenly radical and edgy, the sort of thing that would get Michael fired from google had the video come out a few weeks ago.
More offensively, the Black or White video contains playfully constructed racial stereotypes. And even worse than that, Michael exploits children (and no, not in a sexual way). He gets the kids (including a very young, very caucasian Macaulay Culkin) to celebrate cultural appropriation.
Today, if you advocate the central message of Michael’s song, you’re outing yourself as being on the wrong side of the culture wars: the nasty, right-wing, Trumpy part. And here I’ll be an archetypical drama queen and say that this just makes me want to cry. It makes me feel like I live in some kind of collectivist dystopia. And I suppose, whenever you feel like that, you should take a cue from Orwell and try to think about why things turned out that way. Why is ‘systemic racism’ now just common knowledge? Why is it now just MTV?
The answer to this question is that Martin Luther King’s colour blind view of race is now seen as racist by the very same progressive left which made it a social norm.
That left still controls our cultural etiquette, even though it has very much changed its politics on race. Racism, for the new progressive left, is no longer explained as being purely psychological, but now mostly systemic. But this systemic model of racism is itself, deeply racist. It’s racist even though its proponents often claim that biologically, there is no such thing as race.
Psychological vs Systemic Models of Racism
The old psychological model of racism is different to the new systemic model of racism, in that in the former model, to be racist is to have either beliefs or attitudes about how one race is superior to another. To behave in a racist way is to discriminate against people for no reason other than their race. To engage in racial bigotry is to racialise people; to see them as representatives of their race, rather than as individuals. And perhaps more importantly, racism isn’t relevant to which race is most disadvantaged in society. A person of colour can be racist towards a white person, even if the white person is less disadvantaged than this person of colour. This psychological model not only captures the essence of what racism is, but it was the model that led most activists (and later the general public) to internalise anti-racism as a major social norm.
The systemic model contradicts the psychological model, because on the systemic model, racism just is any empirical inequality of outcome between the majority race and the minority race. If it turns out that black children, statistically, are likely to be punished more harshly than white children for the same naughty behaviours, this just is racism. To behave in a racist way on the systemic model, is simply to increase these collective inequalities between races in any aspect of life. Discrimination gets widened not only to include actual discriminations on the basis of race, but any act which cumulatively adds to increase any of the empirical inequalities between whites and people of colour.
In practice, this means that if Ben hires white applicant Jerry over black job applicant Alice, this act is automatically racist, because it contributes to the statistic where white men, on average, are hired more than black women. Ben’s psychology regarding race is now not the only basis upon which he can be accused of racism. In fact, his views on racism, his character, and his beliefs and attitudes about black people can’t absolve him of this charge of racism. More disturbingly, the systemic view doesn’t prohibit Ben from doing literally racist things, like racialising Alice. It actually demands he racialise her, because racialising Alice is the means by which Ben minimises the racial inequality whereby white men get hired more than black women.
What’s important here is the systemic view of racism entails that racialising people, rather than create racism, gets rid of racism. Because western culture has largely accepted the systemic racism model, racialising people is no longer considered racial bigotry. Instead, racial bigotry is any racialising that increases inequalities between whites and people of colour, while disadvantaging people of colour. The non-racist is supposed to cancel out this disadvantage by racialising people of colour in a way that minimises the inequalities, removing the collective advantages of whites. In other words, non-racists are supposed to fight racism, with what sensible people used to call racism. Martin Luther King’s daughters get judged by the colour of their skin, rather than the content of their character.
Blame People for Racism, Not Inequality
There are three big problems with the systemic racism model. The first is that it confuses and distorts the way racism is treated as a character flaw. On the psychological model, we blame people for being racist, in language that presupposes we are blaming them for what is essentially a sensibility they should change. Any sensibility consists of beliefs and attitudes. Social disapproval towards racist sensibilities is the primary way that society efficiently internalises the norm that racism is a bad thing.
Yet if racism is systemic, we no longer have to blame people merely for having the wrong set of beliefs and attitudes. We can also blame them for unwittingly increasing collective empirical inequalities between people of colour, and whites.
We’re advised to accuse those who increase these inequalities of being racists, even when the increases involve no racist psychology whatsoever.
Think about the statistic that black children get punished more harshly than whites for the same naughty behaviours. Suppose Mrs Swist is a white teacher who punishes a black child called John for bullying other children. Suppose she makes him sit on the bench at recess for 2 days, rather than play with the other children. Suppose on average, most teachers who punish white children for bullying only make them sit on the bench for one day.
On the systemic model, Mrs Swist is racist. But this is itself a bigoted judgement, because we have absolutely no evidence that Mrs Swist is racist. The only thing the evidence shows us is a collective inequality between the way black children and white children are punished for bullying.
The problem is this statistic can’t tell us anything about white racism. It only tells us the difference between what happens to black and white children, on average. It doesn’t explain why this difference exists. Hence, white racism can’t simply be the default explanation of this statistic. If it is the default explanation, this means it’s the default to accuse an ethnic population of something for which it is possibly innocent. And if you’re going to condemn any ethnic population for being racist, you can only avoid being racist yourself if you start with a presumption of innocence. If in the face of statistical inequalities, you can’t see whites as innocent until proven guilty, you’re no less racist than the whites you accuse of racism.
And this point is true not just in regards to racism. Men, after all, get longer prison sentences for committing the same crimes as women.14 But this isn’t evidence that women are sexist against men. It’s merely evidence that in one regard, something bad happens to men more than it happens to women. This kind of inequality doesn’t imply either that society hates men or that women are somehow collectively screwing men over. But it also doesn’t imply the negation of these things either. This is because the bigotry against a demographic group inherent in society can’t be demonstrated simply by pointing out statistical inequalities.
Hence, these statistical inequalities don’t tell us anything about how not to be bigoted. They tell us nothing about whether Mrs Swist did the right thing in punishing John with his two days on the bench. John, after all, may have had a history of being aggressive, rude, not listening to Mrs Swist, and making the other children frightened of going to school. Whether her punishments are more or less like what happens to the set of all white children who bully, is neither here nor there.
And if it turns out that Mrs Swist is racist towards black children and this racism is what explains John’s two days on the bench, this racism has nothing to do with any statistical inequalities. It has to do with Mrs Swist’s psychology. Here it’s important to remember, it’s not only more harsh punishment that could be explained by Mrs Swist’s racism. It could be less harsh punishment. Mrs Swist could be too lenient towards John, because she is racialising him.
However, on the systemic model of racism, Mrs Swist is obligated to racialise John. That means Mrs Swist should treat John not as an individual child who might benefit from 2 days on the bench, but instead see him as a representative of black children. And in seeing John as a representative of black children. Mrs Swist should (at least) punish John in a way which is equal to how white children, on average, are punished for bullying. But even better would be to punish John less harshly than how white children are typically punished. Giving John special treatment in this way would decrease the disadvantages all black children face, on the systemic view.
But the problem is, none of this has anything to do with what John actually needs from Mrs Swist. Black children may improve their lot in terms of a statistic, but one black child ceases to get what he needs from his white teacher. Because she’s treating him as a token black child, he’ll either get punishment which is too lenient, or no punishment at all. To think of this as not racist, is frankly absurd.
There is emphatically no connection between the empirical inequalities between blacks and whites, and how any white person should treat blacks.
People should always be treated as individuals. Such fair and reasonable treatment can certainly exacerbate inequalities between different racial groups. But that’s life, not racism. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.
We can especially see this if we imagine that Mrs Swist has a class of students that consist of 5 black children and 22 white children. Suppose she only punishes 2 children for bullying, and they are both black. Does this mean she’s racist? Only if it’s the case that the reason she is punishing them is because they are black. If it turns out that only 2 children in her class bully and they both happen to be black, punishing only black children is not evidence Mrs Swist is racist. It’s evidence she’s a good teacher. Yet punishing the 2 black children potentially exacerbates an empirical inequality whereby black children are punished more for bullying than white children.
Empirical Inequality is not Racism. Empirical Equality is Not The Absence of Racism.
The second big problem with the systemic model of racism is it makes inequalities between whites and people of colour seem like a racist deviation from the natural state of things. But this is crazy, because no two demographics are ever equal, regarding statistics which describe inequality of outcome. This is true whether we’re talking about their average wages, access to housing, crime rates, incarceration rates, or averaged prison sentences. It doesn’t matter whether the demographics we’re describing involve races, genders, ages, weights, heights, hair colours, eye colours, or hormone levels.
Of course, if a particular racial demographic is much worse off than the rest of the population, there’s a sense in which this population might need specific help. Maybe they need more investing in the social infrastructure of certain cities. Maybe they need more funding for particular social programmes that can help rejuvenate communities where they live. Or maybe they need to change some of their cultural norms that stem from being effected by too much poverty.
Regardless of which of these is the case, what’s important is not the inequality between racial group A and racial group B, but the collective suffering of A. Alleviating needless suffering should be the point of targeting any racial group with assistance. The point isn’t merely to make the suffering of A equal to the suffering of B. The point is to lesson that suffering.
And in lessoning A’s collective disadvantages, it certainly doesn’t matter whether B has more statistical advantages than A does. To assume these statistical inequalities matter is…. kind of petty. Especially if A and B both wind up being relatively middle class, at the end of the day. If B winds up being mostly upper middle class and A winds up being mostly lower middle class, who cares? What’s important is that neither A or B is suffering, in virtue of being something less than middle class.
This equation of racism with empirical equalities happened, I think, because of society internalising quite good values that initially arose from left-wing activism. After the 1960s, the right had largely won the economic side of the culture wars. But the left won the aspect of that war dealing with social issues, and had its greatest victory in society internalising the norm that racism against people of color is deeply wrong.
However, this anti-racist activism relied on a long-standing liberal tradition to psychologically inspire and motivate people; a tradition that eventually involved a philosophical mistake; describing racism as though it was synonymous with any racial inequality.
This was a mistake because there is no connection between being racist and treating 2 people of different races differently. There is only racism if the reason for the different treatment is race itself. Hence, different treatment is not itself a marker of racism.
To see this, let’s return to the teacher example. Suppose later in the year, Nicholas, one of Mrs Swist’s white students, starts to bully other children. Suppose she only gives him 1 day on the bench, rather than 2 like she gave John. Is Mrs Swist being racist here? Not necessarily.
It depends on whether there were non-race related reasons to treat Nicholas differently to John. Maybe John bullied for 2 weeks straight, while Nicholas only bullied for one day. Or maybe Nicholas is generally quite well behaved and sensitive, while John is neither of those things. Treating Nicholas differently to John for bullying is only racist if the different treatment is happening because of their racial differences. If it happens because of their differences as individuals, then this treatment is the paragon example of non-racism.
Also of importance is the fact that Mrs Swist could be racist, even when trying to diminish the statistical inequalities between black and white children. She can always make sure that her black students are punished in exactly the same way as her white students. Yet Mrs Swist can be motivated to do this because she believes that blacks are inherently more violent than whites. She may think they are especially dangerous when there are empirical inequalities which disadvantage them. Here, Mrs Swist could be in favour of systemic racial equality, simply because she is afraid of black people. Her being in favour of systemic racial equality is thus not evidence she is not racist.
Perhaps most importantly, Mrs Swist could be racist against black children, in a world where all the statistics between black and white children contain no inequalities. A world like this without systemic racism, can still be a world that contains massive amounts of racism. Not only is empirical inequality not a marker of such racism, but empirical equality doesn’t necessarily get rid of it.
All Hiring is Discriminatory, and It Should Be
The third problem with the systemic model of racism is its view of hiring practices within the market. According to the systemic racism model, it’s racist not merely when employers racially discriminate against people of colour, but also when they hire them less frequently than whites. Here, the demand that all races be employed at equal rates is expressing a misconception about what it means to hire an employee.
Hiring itself always contains an arbitrary form of unjust discrimination. This is because the property of being “the right person for the job” always involves an element of psychological compatibility with one’s employer. Psychological compatibility is itself a product of discrimination. You get hired not merely for your qualifications, but because your employer wants to work with you. And the reasons an employer might want to work with you will never be free of the essentially arbitrary preferences of that employer.
Suppose we could magically remove all the racial discrimination from the job market. To make matters even more congenial to the systemic racism proponent, let’s say we also remove the sexist discrimination, the age related discrimination, the ability status discrimination, the homophobic discrimination, and the transphobic discrimination. Would this produce a job market that practices unjust discrimination far less? No. It would simply move the discrimination to other attributes of people.
Imagine white, straight, middle class indie-record shop owner Jim, is deciding whether or not to hire white, straight, middle class job applicant Viggo. Suppose Viggo has long hair and tattoos. There are two ways Jim could feel about these attributes of Viggo. Jim could feel that Viggo’s hair and tattoos make him a bohemian sort of person who perfectly compliments the overall ambiance of his record store. Or they could make Jim associate Viggo with a slob who doesn’t make an effort to look professional during a job interview. What’s important is that both ways of interpreting Viggo are forms of discrimination, based on stereotypes. And not only is it impossible for such stereotypes to be removed from an employer’s judgement about who to hire, trying to remove these elements would actually be bad for businesses.
This is because businesses are more than just contractual exchanges between people. They are relationships, and like any relationship, rapport is important. But rapport is always an instinctive product of arbitrary people preferences. Rapport never happens because somebody deserves it. It either happens or it doesn’t, because it has more to do with chemistry than justice. And like it or not, chemistry is about who we naturally bond with, not the justification of such bonds. Chemistry happens in business as much as it happens in love.
This is one of the reasons why people shouldn’t be dependent on the market in order to make a living. The market, even at its most regulated, necessarily discriminates against people for reasons that are always unfair.
So you shouldn’t be penalised for not having rapport with potential employers. Nor should said employers have to ignore who they naturally bond with when choosing who to hire.
In an anti-racist society, hopefully, the racial discrimination that happens in the marketplace will be extremely minimal. But when it does unfortunately exist, it’s very rare that one can clearly identify it. It’s certainly good to outlaw official forms of racist discrimination in the marketplace, such as job adverts which specify, “No Blacks and Mexicans Need Apply.” But outside of overt expressions of racism like this, it’s hard to obtain evidence that any employer is racist in who they choose to hire. We can’t simply accuse employers of racism on the basis of racial inequalities in who gets hired. Just like the question of which children get punished more for the same behaviours, the question of which races get hired most does not give us any evidence that their employers are racist. All such evidence tells us is which races employers collectively have the most rapport with.
But make no mistake. The systemic model of racism encourages only white employers to minimise the role of rapport in who they choose to hire. And it requires many other things of whites.
It blames whites for things that have nothing to do with whether or not whites are racist. The systemic model then requires that whites both racially discriminate against other whites, and actively racialise black people. In other words, it requires that whites do racist things any non-racist person would feel particularly uncomfortable doing. And this perhaps is the most important psychological danger of the systemic racism model.
If anti-racism is an important social norm, it’s dangerous to have a racist version of this norm which gives white people good reasons to resent it. Especially if these white people are mostly people who deeply dislike racism, and are doing their best to treat others as individuals. If whites are accused of racism for what seem like patently absurd reasons, the social norm against anti-racism will start to crumble. The alt right is a symptom of this crumbling.
The Left’s Racial Stereotypes
Because proponents of the systemic view of racism see minimising inequality as the ultimate moral imperative, they only promote the relinquishing of racial stereotypes, when the stereotypes involve people of colour. They actively stereotype white people, as a way of highlighting the inequalities they want to minimise, while making whites feel uniquely guilty about those inequalities. Because proponents of the systemic racism model insist that whites benefit from statistical inequalities, they believe those inequalities are the collective responsibility of whites. Here, white people and people of colour become judged according to wildly divergent double standards. These divergent standards wind up implying, among other things, that whites are uniquely obligated to practice various forms of cultural segregation. And if, as a white person, you have a problem with any of this, you’re just a privileged and entitled wimp. A snowflake, perhaps. A racist snowflake whose skin is the colour of snowflakes.
The irony is, if white people heeded the demands of these progressives, they wouldn’t be all that different to Richard Spencer. They wouldn’t wear clothes made for people of color, they wouldn’t use anything other than white slang, and they wouldn’t spray tan for political reasons. That’s just as “white nationalist” as anything in Unite the Right.
Note to Bernie: Be More Like Michael
Because progressives largely determine the parameters of both mainstream culture and social etiquette regarding race, a social environment has emerged where its quite difficult to have conversations about racism.
Of course, progressives often use the phrase, “We need to have a conversation about race.” But what is meant by this phrase is, “You need to more thoroughly accept our views about race, or else we will treat you like a racist.” Progressive interpretations of anti-racism are treated like moral imperatives, rather than political issues. As such, you can’t have politically correct discussions about racism, apart from discussions about how to most effectively marginalise right-wing racism. One certainly cannot have discussions about what racism is, or whether the systemic model of racism has got something seriously wrong with it. It’s verboten to suggest that it is this very model of anti-racism which is fuelling racial tension and extremism in society. It’s even verboten to make a cultural artefact like Michael Jackson’s Black or White video.
This fundamentally, is why it’s a mistake to think the anti-PC right is the biggest threat to anti-racism. The alt-right might profess horrible ideas it’s best to avoid. But those ideas fortunately scare the shit out of most people, and have virtually no cultural or institutional power.
Yes, the alt-right are notorious for trolling people in ways that can be both terrifying and humiliating. But trolling, we should remember, is the refuge of the powerless. Progressive racists don’t need to troll, because their methods are ultimately more effective at reshaping society in their own intersectional image. Their bullying is less obvious, but fundamentally more effective. The threat of being stalked by a small set of shitposters doesn’t change hearts and minds as much as the threat of society hating you.
Trump, the alt right, and neo-nazis are thus symptoms of a culturally normalised anti-racism politics that equates colour blind approaches to race with racism. This systemic racism outlook is actually the modern face of socially acceptable racism, a face which is attempting to marginalise anything other than itself. It’s chief rhetorical trick is to insist that any criticism of it for being racist is null and void, because there is no such thing as racism against whites. This trick is something one can see in a plethora of articles, political speeches, humanities and social science courses, and even comedy addressed to audiences without particular political affiliations.
Yet this claim about the impossibility of white racism is only true if systemic racism is the right model for describing racism. And as we’ve seen, the consequences of that model are both ludicrous, and things which make otherwise non-racist people feel understandably angry and belittled. This is a politics that, if you accept it, requires you to be racist on the one hand, and denounce things which are very obviously not racist. Like the Black or White video.
The humanistic element of that video, its unabashed love for the idea of a colour blind society, appropriating and cross pollinating different outfits and dances, is really the left at its best. There’s something very desirable about a world where Michael Jackson’s views on race are corny and obvious, something no normal person in their right mind would go against.
If we want something like that world for the rest of the 21st century, its not merely the far right which needs to be fought. Its primarily the progressive left. After all, it’s hard to believe Donald Trump would even be president, had Bernie Sanders had the courage to attack progressives on the issues of race, gender, and freedom of speech. If he did this, many of the people at the Charlottesville rally might have voted for him, rather than choose to align themselves with Richard Spencer.
But in order for any anti-racist politics to be effective, it has to be self-reflective. It can’t get so bogged down in zealotry that it can’t see that its become the very thing it’s fighting against. Rather, anyone who considers themselves an opponent of racism and a lover of humanity must be able to see their own hypocrisies and correct them. Or to put it more bluntly, “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”
Make that change, lefties. And don’t forget to look in the mirror.
- For more on the alt right, see Angela Nagel’s fascinating book Kill All Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Zero books. 2017.
- See https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/aug/15/charlottesville-car-attack-eyewitnesses-virginia-heather-heyer
- See http://www.cbsnews.com/news/charlottesville-mayor-mike-signer-twitter-trolls-confederate-monument-protest/ Also see https://www.theverge.com/2017/8/16/16147782/facebook-mark-zuckerberg-charlottesville-neo-nazis-violent-threats
- See http://www.sentinelsource.com/mcclatchy/citing-safety-and-security-baltimore-mayor-has-city-s-confederate/article_32679398-91f5-58aa-b8ad-e10d2a733461.html Also see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/08/22/after-duke-incident-rival-unc-considers-whether-to-remove-confederate-statue/?utm_term=.fb266b3c4c88
- See http://nypost.com/2017/08/23/de-blasio-says-removing-columbus-statue-is-on-the-table/ Also see http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/08/22/internal-affairs-san-jose-organizers-push-to-remove-christopher-columbus-statue-from-city-hall/
- See http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-charlottesville-witnesses-20170815-story.html Also see http://thefederalist.com/2017/08/14/white-supremacists-not-thugs-tearing-charlottesville/ Also see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/08/16/facts-behind-donald-trumps-claims-charlottesville-violence/
- See http://edition.cnn.com/2017/08/18/us/boston-free-speech-rally/index.html
- See http://boston.cbslocal.com/2017/08/17/boston-free-speech-rally-speakers-john-medlar-fight-supremacy/
- See http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1708/19/cnr.04.html
- See https://www.adl.org/blog/free-speech-rally-planned-for-boston
- See http://whdh.com/news/we-dont-want-them-here-mayor-walsh-wants-free-speech-organizers-to-stay-away/
- See http://www.gloucestertimes.com/opinion/letters_to_the_editor/letter-racist-rhetoric-was-not-free-speech/article_8c33c6d4-1857-5f62-8232-cd5cefe9d6b8.html
- See https://chomsky.info/19810228/
- See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/11/men-women-prison-sentence-length-gender-gap_n_1874742.html Also see https://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/sentencing-gap-men-likely-go-prison-mrzs/ Also see http://mra-uk.co.uk/?p=215
- Cover Image: Still from “Black or White” Video by Michael Jackson. Directed by John Landis. Posted by Nevermind5555 at fanpop.com http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/michael-jackson/quiz/show/449907/michaels-inspiration-create-black-white-vide
- A sign on the statue of Robert E Lee calls for the park to be renamed for Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia Wednesday. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
- Counter-protesters stand on the periphery of the ‘free speech rally’ on Boston Common. One of the planned speakers of the rally that appeared to end shortly after it began says the event ‘fell apart’. Photograph: Michael Dwyer/AP
- White nationalist demonstrators clash with counter demonstrators at the entrance to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday 12 August. Photograph: Steve Helber/AP
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- Michael Jackson, on set of the Black or White Posted by Nevermind5555 at fanpop.com http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/michael-jackson/quiz/show/449907/michaels-inspiration-create-black-white-video