Amy Cooper was asked to put her pet on a leash, in accordance with city ordinance. Rather than simply complying with the rules, Ms. Cooper tried to sic the police on the person who pointed out her violation — feigning to be in imminent danger from an “African American man.” Fortunately, the man accused of threatening Ms. Cooper recorded the incident. His sister later uploaded the video to social media, where it went viral; it has already been viewed tens of millions of times.
It is unclear what the appropriate consequences for something like this should be, given how dire the consequences of her actions could have been (as recent events in Minneapolis sadly confirm). However, Ms. Cooper has already paid a high price for her transgression: She has been publicly shamed and terminated from her position as a VP and Head of Investment Solutions at Franklin Templeton Investments. She has surrendered custody of her dog (whom she dragged around by the neck for most of the confrontation). Some lawmakers have called for her to be charged with making a false report to police.
A lot of ink has been spilled over this incident and others like it. One thing that has been largely missing from these stories is the political orientation of the white people who behave in this manner. It may be tempting to view this question as a distraction from the “core” issue at hand — however, I will argue, this component may actually be essential for understanding how many of these stories play out.
Consider Ms. Cooper’s threat against the person who told her to leash her dog: She was going to call the cops and “tell them there’s an African American man threatening” her life. It seems taken as a given that the police are racially biased — that they will act with overwhelming force, and without regard to the actual facts of the case, to defend a white person who appears to be in danger from a black man. Even though she was the one breaking rules, she assumed the police would target him, precisely on the grounds that he was an “African American man.”
This is not a set of assumptions that most conservatives would likely hold. They are generally skeptical of claims of racial bias in policing. While some acknowledge a few “bad apples,” they assert that law enforcement officers typically discharge their duties in a restrained and fair manner, with their responses to situations dictated by the pertinent facts of the case.
In other words, Ms. Cooper’s assumption that the cops would respond in a forceful manner against a black man without asking too many questions, strictly in virtue of his race as compared to hers — this is the kind of belief that liberals tend to hold about cops.
Indeed, based on her demographic characteristics — urban, white, female, highly-educated, of an upper-socio-economic status — it is statistically highly probable that Ms. Cooper voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election.
The peculiar intersection of race, class, and ideology that Ms. Cooper embodies is hardly unusual for cases like these. Consider: in areas of concentrated poverty that are being gentrified or that lie adjacent to wealthier areas (as is often the case in urban settings), policing tends to be much more frequent and aggressive — even for small crimes. Those calling the cops on people of color for things like taking shelter from the rain, failing to wave at a white passerby while leaving their AirBnB, sitting in their car waiting for yoga class to start, accidentally brushing up against a white person in a store, etcetera — the people regularly seeking out law enforcement for things like loud music, loitering, “suspected” criminal activity, or domestic disturbances — these are often relatively well-off, highly-educated, liberal, white denizens eager to “clean up” or “protect” the neighborhoods they choose to live in.
Moreover, it is liberals who go out of their way to embed themselves in communities of color — especially young and highly-educated professionals or artists. Granted, rents tend to be cheaper in these areas. However, many are also drawn to such neighborhoods, quite explicitly, because they are “historic,” “cultured” and “diverse.” In so doing, they put themselves in situations where they more frequently come into contact with minorities. If misunderstandings or conflicts arise (as they inevitably will in multi-cultural and gentrifying urban neighborhoods), many reflexively look to local authorities to resolve these disputes on their behalf. Like Ms. Cooper, this is often done in confidence that the police will align themselves with the white person making the call. In practice, then, they are attempting to use police to punish people of color who are insufficiently deferent to their own demands or preferences. However, it is extremely difficult for most white liberals to understand their actions in this way due to a phenomenon social scientists call “moral credentialing.”
Research in the cognitive and behavioral sciences suggests that when whites explicitly denounce racism or affirm their commitment to racial equality, they often — paradoxically — grow more likely to act in ways that favor other whites; simultaneously, they grow more confident that their actions were not racially-motivated.
A similar effect holds when they observe others from their “in-group” making gestures towards antiracism: it convinces them not only that their peers are egalitarians but that their own actions and interactions are non-biased as well. Conversely, blaming or criticizing “others” for a particular moral failing reduces one’s own sense of guilt for that same moral failing.
Consequently, for whites who inhabit social circles where people go around denouncing racism to one another constantly — painting themselves as staunch advocates for social justice — it would become almost impossible for these people to see the role that they play in perpetuating systemic inequality.
Under the sway of moral credentialing, people can take actions that they would recognize in others as “racist” without understanding themselves to be racist when performing those same actions. These dynamics are quite clear in Ms. Cooper’s apology: She acknowledged how someone might perceive her actions to be racist but she insisted nonetheless that her behaviors were not racially motivated and that she never meant to harm anyone.
Put another way, it is not merely the case that liberals and leftists are capable of being dangerously entitled around people of color, they are probably more likely to engage in these sorts of behaviors than non-leftists. Precisely because they view themselves as “allies” to members of historically marginalized and disadvantaged groups, they often feel justified in taking liberties they would deny to other whites — confident that their actions are not racist, that they are merely giving an appropriate response to the situation at hand.
Indeed, Ms. Cooper herself may well have been outraged had she witnessed some other white woman calling the cops on a black man for telling her to leash her dog. She may have even joined the chorus against “BBQ Becky,” “Permit Patty” et al. during previous viral incidents.
However, these exercises in ritual purification do precious little to help people from historically marginalized or disadvantaged groups. They don’t even meaningfully raise awareness, as they circulate primarily among those who are already the most “aware.” More than anything else, these campaigns are a form of catharsis for white elites. With each op-ed and retweet, they reassure themselves that they are “different” from those other whites, the ones who are ignorant, unenlightened, fearful of diversity. They are the good whites and they would never resort to such tactics were they to somehow find themselves in a dustup with a black person.
And perhaps they wouldn’t. But there’s a good chance they would.
Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University. Readers can connect to his research and social media via his website, musaalgharbi.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to a piece in the Independent, a reputable British broadsheet that included now discredited information on political donations thought to have been made by Amy Cooper. We regret the error.