In a recent essay for Public Seminar, I explored Amy Cooper’s attempts to sic police on a black man for telling her to leash her dog. I argued that her actions should not be understood as novel or surprising, and explained how her likely (liberal) sociopolitical orientation may have contributed to how the confrontation played out.
In general, whites and socioeconomic elites in America feel a greater sense of entitlement and belonging, and a stronger conviction that social institutions exist to serve them and promote their interests. Within these groups, progressives are much more likely than conservatives to view various forms of state intervention as the ideal means of addressing problems. As compared to men, women are more likely to rely on authorities to exercise aggression — particularly in conflicts against males. As a result of broader cultural shifts over the last few decades, contemporary adults are more likely to rely on bureaucrats, administrators, and other authorities to resolve interpersonal disputes than people have been in previous generations.
At the other end of these spectra, those who skew older, conservative, and/or male are more likely to resort to direct confrontation during attempts to enforce the racial order — including veritable lynchings (such as occurred with Ahmaud Arbery), “self-defense” killings, mass shootings, and incidents of outright terrorism.
That is, the specific form of racial aggression that Amy Cooper exhibited is typical of a very particular stratum of American society — from the involvement of authorities in an interpersonal dispute (and under the left-typical assumption that cops are racially-biased) to the politically-correct evocation of race throughout the confrontation (“African American”) to the feigned distress during the phone call with police dispatchers (evoking gendered and racialized stereotypes in order to provoke a more rapid and forceful response). It all came effortlessly and automatically. Even though she grew up in Canada, Ms. Cooper was able to deploy the social scripts of white American elites like a pro (which is not too surprising, as she has been attending elite schools and performing elite jobs in the United States for well over a decade).
Anyone who occupies a similar socio-cultural position to Amy Cooper has similar scripts available to them — and could behave in a similar manner if they were to find themselves in an altercation with a black person. And as I highlighted, they regularly do. Consequently, the pearl-clutching about Ms. Cooper’s behavior among her peers, the attempts to pathologize her as especially depraved or immoral — these seem like attempts by other social elites to convince themselves (and others) that they are somehow different from her. The reality of the situation, I argued, is much more uncomfortable.
My essay on Amy Cooper was the conclusion of a series. Previously, for The Baffler, I highlighted how the lifestyles of the professional-managerial class are fundamentally premised on the undercompensated labor of desperate and vulnerable “disposable people.” The rub, of course, is that most of those who participate in this exploitation are members of what economist Thomas Piketty aptly named the “Brahmin Left”: highly-educated, “culturally liberal,” staunch advocates of diversity and inclusion, environmentally-conscious, healthy-living, technocratically-inclined people, committed to “doing well while doing good.” Increasingly, as Piketty notes, these people have come to associate themselves with the Democratic Party (and, in his telling, have largely “captured” the DNC’s agenda).
In the Chronicle of Higher Education, I extended this analysis to look at institutions of higher learning — demonstrating how the lifestyles of contemporary tenured and tenure-track professors are predicated upon the production and exploitation of “disposable scholars.” Here again, the irony is that academics today skew overwhelmingly left and tend to be among the most aggressive critics of inequality in society writ large.
For Contexts, I demonstrated that many fashionable definitions of racism and anti-racist activism seem to be out of step with attitudes and priorities of most people of color — and may even be pernicious to those they are supposed to help. However, these approaches do seem to advance the interests of liberal elites, who play an outsized role in defining racism in academia, the media, and the broader culture.
Some common themes run throughout these four pieces: a focus on elites, liberals, academics, and journalists — and how members of these groups often perpetuate and reinforce racialized inequality, sometimes in the name of anti-racism, apparently oblivious to how their own lifestyles and behaviors are related to the problems they are ostensibly committed to eliminating.
Here, I would like to briefly clarify the “point” of these works. I’ll begin by emphasizing what I was not trying to say.
The point is not to bash whites.
In the United States, sufficient buy-in from whites has been an essential ingredient for all successful social justice campaigns: black emancipation, gay rights, feminism, environmental protection — you name it. To the extent that these movements were able to claim victories, white allies played a decisive role.
Yes, it is also the case that whites were typically the main antagonists to these reformers and their objectives. This is precisely the point: Right or wrong, for good or ill, for any social or political movement in America, oriented towards virtually any cause, success is contingent upon securing a solid block of white support. It is pretty much impossible for a major social initiative to succeed in the United States independent of any white participation, or (especially) facing near-unanimous white opposition. This will remain the case for the foreseeable future.
In fact, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the facile “white bashing” in vogue today within academic and journalistic circles often serves to reinforce racist narratives (middle and working-class whites’ values, interests, culture, and way of life are under siege; minorities can only rise up at whites’ expense, et cetera) and may have contributed to the contemporary resurgence of white identity politics and the recent success of reactionary political leaders like Trump.
The point of these essays, therefore, is not to bash whites. White people are not the enemy. They constitute a majority of the U.S. population (and an even larger share of the electorate). Making them “the enemy” is a fool’s errand. It is a surefire way to ensure the status quo persists (or gets worse).
The point is not to bash liberals.
The argument in these essays is emphatically not that liberals are the “real” racists or anything of the sort. Instead, the point is that liberals are not immune to the tendencies they decry in others — and their expressed commitment to anti-racism can blind them to the ways that they, themselves, reinforce or perpetuate racialized inequality.
This does not mean they are being cynical or insincere. If anything, the passion of these erstwhile allies is often an obstacle preventing them from gaining a good grasp on the situation; they would benefit from a bit more pragmatism in the place of their (self) righteous zeal.
The goal of these essays, then, is not to call for uncompromised and uncompromising wokeness. The fact that white allies frequently have blind spots and conflicting motives or priorities is not grounds for condemning them, much less casting them aside. As philosopher Richard Rorty aptly put it:
In democratic countries, you get things done by compromising your principles in order to form alliances with groups about whom you have grave doubts. The Left in America has made a lot of progress by doing just that. The closest the Left ever came to taking over the government was in 1912, when a Whitman enthusiast, Eugene Debs, ran for president and got almost a million votes. These votes were cast by, as Daniel Bell puts it, “as unstable a compound as was ever mixed in the modern history of political chemistry.” This compound mingled rage at low wages and miserable working conditions with ‘the puritan conscience of millionaire socialists… the tepid social-work impulse of do-gooders, inarticulate and amorphous desire to “belong” of the immigrant workers, the iconoclastic idol-breaking of the literary radicals … Those dispossessed farmers were often racist, nativist, and sadistic. The millionaire socialists, ruthless robber barons though they were, nevertheless set up the foundations which sponsored the research which helped get leftist legislation passed. We need to get rid of the Marxist idea that only bottom-up initiatives, conducted by workers and peasants who have somehow been so freed from resentment as to show no trace of prejudice, can achieve our country.
The point is not to bash “elites.”
However, the main reason I focus on elites in these essays is that realistically speaking, they are my most likely audience. As Morris Fiorina has demonstrated, the entire political and cultural melodrama carried out in academic journals, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, et al. — it is the same narrow band of American society that produces and consumes virtually all of this content. It is a tempest in a teacup — although this is not to say there is little at stake:
Right or wrong, for good or ill, social elites wield disproportionate cultural and political power (definitionally so). Moreover, they tend to be much more politically engaged than everyone else. Consequently, the ways elites understand and approach various issues is of great material consequence.
Unfortunately, many have taken to defining racism, and anti-racist activism, in terms of intentions, emotions, rhetoric, and symbolic gestures. Even as they emphasize (frankly, fetishize) the marking, policing, and destruction of “black bodies,” they ruminate endlessly over the contents of whites’ hearts and minds.
I have argued that such psychologized approaches to addressing racism are demonstrably unhelpful, and often counterproductive. I have advocated, instead, for a focus on behaviors, institutional structures, and allocations of resources. Allies should refrain from “moral grandstanding.” They should begin their quest for social justice by taking a hard look at their own actions and interactions, and the institutions and communities they are personally embedded in. They should leverage their resources and capacities, first and foremost, within these contexts. The specific objectives they pursue should be informed by the expressed needs and priorities of the people they are trying to help.
I have labeled this alternative approach ascetic antiracism. Its primary virtue is that it can help to actually mitigate inequality in concrete ways, in concrete places. As an added bonus, it would also render the pursuit of social justice far less insane. Most minorities (excepting, sadly, some elites of color) aren’t looking for whites to grovel before them, hungry for approval, desperate for morsels of wisdom about how to be a good person. They aren’t looking for whites to surveil and police every thought, word, and feeling they have — to play back every interaction with a person of color and apologize for every conceivable slight. They aren’t looking for white self-flagellation or constant empty “conversations” about race. All of this amounts to far too much of very little.
The point of these essays is to generate reflexivity and encourage analytical egalitarianism.
Analytical egalitarianism is about treating all of the people in the analysis, including the analyst themselves, as the same essential “type” of being.
Whites are not intrinsically more biased and depraved than everyone else — nor are people of color magical beings, possessing moral purity and a direct line to objective truth. Nor are social observers immune from the tendencies they observe (and often condemn) in others, et cetera.
Reflexivity is a social research principle that general theories should also apply to the theorists themselves, the institutions they are embedded in, the actors and causes the theorists support, et cetera. If we want to understand systemic inequality, for instance, scholars, journalists, activists, progressive politicians, dutiful bureaucrats, non-profit workers, et al. should be included “in the model” alongside those that analysts are less sympathetic towards.
Allow me to briefly elaborate on this point — and fold myself into the big picture.
One way to understand why a particular order persists is to look at who it serves: Who is flourishing and succeeding? Who is left behind? Unfortunately, when journalists and academics talk about elites (i.e. those best served by a given social order), we conveniently tend to focus on the top 1 percent — as if millionaires and billionaires are capable of creating, enforcing, and perpetuating society and culture all by themselves.
More realistically, to understand how a social order is formed, reproduced, and sustained, analysts should start by examining the upper quintile of society. This would include the millionaires and billionaires. However, it would also count the people who actually run the non-profits, government bureaucracies, corporations, universities, and other institutions through which the 1 percent often attempt to exert their will; it would include those who shape public understanding of social reality as scholars, journalists, civic and religious leaders, teachers, artists, et cetera.
Critically, this “professional-managerial class” does not passively receive, and mindlessly execute, the dictates of the 1 percent. Instead, we actively shape “the system” in accordance with our own will and priorities. We facilitate the operation of the prevailing order, ensure its continued viability, and implement reforms. Put another way, we do not stand outside of society — nor are we passive observers of the racial order. We are active participants.
Of course, the tension is that the professional-managerial class in the United States skews liberal, especially on “cultural” issues like race (including finance people like Amy Cooper). We are the primary producers and consumers of anti-racist, feminist, and socialist content, and we staunchly resist understanding ourselves as “elites.” However, we are also among the primary beneficiaries of systemic inequality. We are heavily invested in “the system” and complicit in its operation. We often have trouble honestly reckoning with these latter facts as a result of the former. Consequently, we tend to blame others for societal injustice — especially our political or ideological opponents — while under-analyzing the (often larger) role that we, ourselves, play in producing and perpetuating unfortunate states of affairs. This is one reason problems persist despite widespread commitment to resolve them: Everyone thinks someone else is responsible.
Shakespeare once said, “the eye sees not itself but by reflection.” A similar principle holds for those trying to understand society. Reflexivity allows social observers to “see” themselves (and those they identify with) in the analytical “picture” — generating a fuller and more accurate understanding of the social world. Although the image that gets reflected back to us will often be unflattering, the upshot is that we have the capacity to do better if we don’t like what we see.
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.