Colin Kaepernick and the Anti-Racism Industry
The Vassar Political Review recently published an op-ed by Hallie Carton, criticizing the NFL’s hypocritical attempts to “align itself with the current social justice movement” during the Super Bowl despite its blackballing of Colin Kaepernick. Carton asserts that the NFL is fooling no one by claiming it cares about people of color if it is simultaneously bowing down to President Trump’s demands and pandering to racist NFL fans who believe that kneeling to protest an abuse of power is unpatriotic.
Carton’s implication was that Andrew Young, John Lewis, and Bernice King’s invitation to the coin toss was mere tokenism, no better than any other brand’s appropriation of woke-culture “in order to turn a profit.” Carton was not the only one in America to voice this opinion. Director Ava DuVernay refused to watch the Super Bowl and accused the NFL of “racist treatment of [Kaepernick].” Even The New York Times and The Atlantic called out the NFL’s hypocrisy.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it attributes more legitimacy to Kaepernick than he deserves, muddying the waters of the national discourse. It not only portrays him as a martyr, but portrays him as a righteous martyr. The trope is not a problem because his recent settlement with the NFL offsets his unemployment, resulting in a sort of breaking even for both parties, and everyone should just be happy with that. Rather, the popular portrayal of Kaepernick is problematic–and it will become clear later that I use this word, rather than “wrong” or “inaccurate” or “misleading” or even “false” quite purposefully despite how much it makes me wince–for two reasons. First off, his claims have been factually inaccurate, and secondly, he is a martyr in the exact same way David Buckel, a man who self-immolated as a protest against climate change–an act that was soon forgotten–was a martyr. If Kaepernick is really a martyr, it reflects poorly on the religion of which he is an acolyte.
The popular consensus, however, is that, vis-à-vis Kaepernick, the NFL has blasphemed and is now damned for eternity. The Atlantic article on Kaepernick’s settlement concluded that “the league will forever have to live with the fact that it was complicit in destroying someone’s career simply because he wished to bring attention to the injustices suffered by his people.” The NFL’s empty maneuvering during the Super Bowl certainly did not absolve its sins.
However, Kaepernick’s actions have lacked a similar substance. In September of 2018, Nike released a tightly framed image of Kaepernick’s face with the caption: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” But what has Kaepernick’s sacrifice actually achieved? Nike’s statement might be the best way to summarize Kaepernick’s plight: powerful but hollow.
Yet, despite the shallowness of Kaepernickgate, media organizations and advertisers are scrambling to jump on the social justice wagon, ostensibly in the interest of corporate profit. Nike makes no reference to Kaepernick’s achievements and is understandably silent with regard to his motivations; the NFL now markets itself with woke gestures (the inspiration for Carton’s article); The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and The New York Times write popular op-eds about the NFL’s hypocrisy and other social justice successes and failures. Then there’s McDonald’s LGBTQ-flag marketing, the infamous Gillette ad, the Adidas pride pack section, and all those woke T-shirts, stickers, buttons, and sympathetic posts on social media. Now, where’s the part where Kaepernick’s protest actually helps poor black people, or even could? It just makes you wonder who isn’t selling something.
Why Colin Kaepernick is Wrong:
After Kaepernick first knelt for the national anthem in 2016, he told the NFL Media, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Kaepernick was voicing a grievance held by many in America: that, generally speaking, cops are racist, and this is emblematic of the institutional racism that is holding back people of color. What kind of evil person would want people of color to be oppressed? Any reasonable person, it seemed, had to support him.
Kaepernick was not the first person to deplore police brutality against black people; in fact, his protest was a late manifestation of a longtime post-Civil Rights public discourse over racial profiling, revitalized in 2013 and then again in 2015 by Black Lives Matter in response to the murders of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. Kaepernick was likely also inspired by the author Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose 2015 “breakout memoir ‘Between the World and Me,’ a moving and despairing letter to his then-15-year-old son… warned: "You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels… The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return."
Kaepernick’s rhetoric repeated the same message: “Another murder in the streets because the color of a man's skin, at the hands of the people who they say will protect us,” he posted on Twitter in response to a video of Alton Sterling’s death at the hands of police in July of 2016. The difference was that now, millions of white people were on K/C/BLM’s side, as similar protests to Kaepernick’s erupted across the NFL and the country.
However, K/C/BLM are wrong about race and police violence. They are incorrect to conclude from a few dozen or so videos of obscene police shootings that the cops are systematically racist, and that violence against people of color is a symptom of an omnipresent white supremacy. This is not only because it is impossible to prove a universal from a particular. In every video of a black man or woman killed by police that led to an acquittal, there is vital information about culpability missing, and even the larger data fails to confirm the assertion that these killings were racially motivated.
Just consider Sterling’s case. The event was made out to be an unjustifiable and sadistic racially motivated killing–the last straw for Kaepernick before his protest began. The event, however, appears less racially tinged upon further scrutiny.
Anyone would find the video disturbing. We see Sterling pinned on the ground by one cop, squirming, as another runs over and also holds him down. At that point, one officer pulls out a gun and shoots Sterling at point-blank range. The sound of a woman crying can be heard among the screams as the video ends. From this bystander video and others that were released later on, it is understandable why the reaction to his killing was so visceral.
Setting aside the fact that Sterling resisted arrest, there doesn’t seem to be any justification for the violent reaction of the officer. However, the cops in the altercation claimed that Sterling had been reaching for a gun in his pocket, and “a .38-caliber handgun was found at the scene.” Of the many videos of the altercation, none were able to prove or disprove the officers’ claim, which is why they were ultimately acquitted of murder. Recently, one of the officers was fired from the Baton Rouge police force “for violating use-of-force policies in the Alton Sterling shooting,” but there still remains no tangible evidence that this murder was racially charged, as Kaepernick and many others believed.
As unjust as the killing was, it’s inaccurate that what happened to Sterling only happens to people of color. In fact, there are as many and possibly more white people who have been shot by police in equally questionable circumstances. Linguist John McWhorter of Columbia University has written about many of these cases. Here are just a few examples:
“Last year  in January, a Montana officer, suspecting Loren Simpson of car theft, referred to him to his partner as a ‘little f*cker’ of the sort who ‘go steal cars, they go break into sh*t.’ The cops pursued Simpson, and when he tried to turn away from them they shot him dead, even though federal guidelines prohibit firing into moving vehicles. Back one more year, in 2014, the deaths of James Boyd, Alfred Redwine and Mary Hawkes in New Mexico were similar stories; what happened to Pastor Jonathan Ayers in 2009 in Georgia is but one example further back than that.”
And the list goes on and on. There are racist cops, but who is helped by the claim that police brutality is a racial issue? Many people are happy to call the NFL racist, but the NFL has to accommodate its fans, the majority of whom oppose K/BLM essentialization of the issue. Is it possible that these fans aren’t all racist, but rather they know police brutality affects everyone, not just black lives? We can talk about whether it was fair for the cop to pull the trigger (that’s the real crux of the issue), but it’s misguided to make race the center of the conversation, especially with so little evidence to do so.
K/C/BLM aren’t stupid; they know a universal cannot be proven from a particular–nor do they pretend to have the evidence of wider racial disparities–and yet they still are making police brutality a racial issue. The examples McWhorter found of whites unjustly killed by the police even understate that K/C/BLM’s claims are an overstatement. Although the data is extremely limited, the available data on people killed by police in America shows more whites are killed by police every year than any people of color. According to The Guardian, in 2015, 584 whites were killed by cops, and in 2016, 574 whites were killed by cops. In both years, whites made up more than half of the total number of people killed by law enforcement. But the data goes deeper than that.
Looking at 2012 arrest and legal police intervention data, a 2016 study found that, in proportion to the number of stops and arrests of their respective populations, killings by police occur at nearly equivalent rates across every race/ethnicity. Even though the number of killings by police of each race/ethnicity are disproportionate to their respective populations, the study’s findings are explained by the fact that people of color are stopped and arrested at higher rates than whites. Considering this evidence, it’s unclear what kind of immoral disparities in killings by police exist.
It is only partly true that police emphasis on petty crime in communities of color (a result of the War on Drugs) is the cause for the higher rates of stops and arrests in these communities. Indeed, the disproportionate policing of petty crime in communities of color may have meant ignoring more serious felonies. But for decades, communities of color have also had much higher rates of felonies and capital crimes. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “from 1980 through 2008… blacks were six times more likely than whites to be homicide victims and seven times more likely than whites to commit homicide.”
Crucially, almost no homicides during this timeframe were racially-motivated. Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard, noted in his book Enlightenment Now that, during the same period, “racially-motivated killings of blacks occurred at a rate of zero to one per year.” The fact is that people are usually killed by people they know, and because of the generally racially segregated living demographics in America, they are usually killed by people of their own race/ethnicity. According to the same Bureau of Justice Statistics data, “84 percent of white homicide victims were murdered by whites and 93 percent of black victims were murdered by blacks” during the same timeframe.
The hovering police presence in communities of color is in fact a response to patterns of crime, not a cause. In his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, James Forman Jr., a Yale University law professor, analyzes how black leadership was instrumental in the War on Drugs and the War on Crime starting in the 1970s due to concern about the already high rates of “black-on-black crime” and the potential dangers of drugs in their communities. The greater number of police interactions with people of color than with whites, this suggests, is a result of higher rates of crime in communities of color, and whatever the role of the War on Drugs is in differences in rates of crime between racial groups, Forman concludes it is equally the fault of black leadership as it is the fault of whites.
I don’t bring up “black-on-black crime” to repeat some tired version of the finger-wagging Sean Hannity-type scolding black people about taking responsibility for their actions. Intraracial crime and police brutality have become interconnected and cyclical; fixing one also requires fixing the other. It’s incorrect when a conservative of Hannity’s mold says that if someone doesn’t want to face the law, they shouldn’t commit the crime in the first place; that black people need to stop killing each other before they can complain about the police. Indeed, people have the ability to manage their actions, but sometimes the least preferable option is the best option.
The problem is that sometimes violence becomes necessary for survival. In her 2015 book Ghettoside, journalist Jill Leovy shows how ghettoization, especially in poor black communities in America, has created a culture and economy of crime in which holding perpetrators accountable is nearly impossible. This economy is dominated by intimidation tactics and petty preemptive and retaliatory killings. What drives this economy, Leovy believes, is that the legitimate purveyor of justice is lacking, so the price of violence is dramatically decreased. The same patterns of crime are not particular to any “innate” disposition. They are repeated in every similar living situation around the world, in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and even in hunter-gatherer societies. She suggests that petty violence is really an adaptation to minimize violence.
However, this violent adaptation still marks a cultural shift. In Baghdad, for example, following the US invasion of Iraq, lawless and petty violence became widespread and continues today, even though US forces have since mostly withdrawn. As McWhorter points out,“negative social traits can persist long past what the original cause was.” That is, the disproportionate level of violence in Baghdad and other poor communities is not evidence of any current oppression (not to say it is evidence against it).
The culture was in fact changed by the decimation of the domestic government’s monopoly on violence. Indeed, the present culture in Baghdad and poor communities of color alike is one of violence, but that still doesn’t mean that people have to shoot each other over nothing; they still can take responsibility for their actions, and they still have the choice to use less violent means.
The major factor Leovy credits for the high rates of “black-on-black crime” is low crime clearance rates, which measure the number of violent crimes solved by police. In New York, for example, “86 percent of 2013 homicides involving a white victim were solved, compared to 45 percent of those involving a black victim.” And, according to FBI data, the clearance rate for robbery was 29.6 percent in 2014 overall, but much lower in minority communities. Low clearance rates become cyclical: when “communities feel distrustful as a result of being both overpoliced for low-level crimes and underpoliced for serious crimes, they are going to be less likely to cooperate with cops.”
Without the cops to enforce justice, these communities are forced to do it themselves. For example, sociologist Alice Goffman famously drove the getaway car for the subjects of her study, a gang of young black men in a poor West Philadelphia neighborhood, as they hunted for the killer of one of their friends, convinced the police were of no use. Diminishing the violence, it seems, is the responsibility of both these communities and the police.
Even if there is no evidence that cops kill people of color out of racism, there might still be questions regarding discrepancies in their use of force. A study by Roland Fryer did find that blacks are more likely than whites to experience force during a police stop. However, Fryer’s statistics should be understandable given the higher rates of violence among poor communities of color and the environment cops have to face. With more police interactions and a larger threat of violence, cops in poor communities have reason to have more fear than in a low-crime middle-class suburb. This isn’t racism, it’s just statistics and, at its core, survivalism.
And it’s difficult to think that the cops can somehow overcome this fear. Policing is an overwhelming and dangerous job. In 2017, 46 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty, over 60,201 were assaulted, and 17,476 were treated for injury. This means that whenever a cop pulls someone over, there’s a good chance they’ll remember their buddy or another cop not too distantly connected to them who was injured or even killed in one of these banal interactions.
Cops shouldn’t be expected to be master boxers. Even boxers get knocked out, and cops carry guns. Just imagine the terror you’d feel if someone you are trying to arrest reaches for your gun and all you can do is hope you reach for yours first (or you can somehow hold them back). Not only do cops have to expect a violent criminal around every corner, but they have to face dozens of terrifying and complex interactions daily, and often they don’t have the time or ability to fix the problems themselves. Just take a story that Leovy told to Vox about a ride-along she had in Los Angeles with a police sergeant:
“The situation was a domestic violence incident where he was abusive, and then he had smashed the plate glass windows of the ground-floor apartment and disappeared into the darkness.
So the police come. They take the reports. They deal with the victim. She’s not wealthy, obviously, and the front window of her apartment has been broken. And it’s in the middle of the night in south [Los Angeles], and she’s got a bunch of kids. And they finished the report, and realized they can’t leave her there, because she has no protection, it’s not safe to be in an open apartment. And they can’t figure out what to do–there’s no place to take her, there’s nothing to be done with the window.
We ended up sitting there with the sergeant for a couple hours, radioing all over the city. And finally, they found an officer way across the city in another precinct who had been a carpenter in his previous life. He drove to the only 24-hour Home Depot in the county and got a piece of plywood. And three hours later, he nailed up the piece of plywood on the window by himself, so that the cops could leave and go on other calls.
The sergeant turns to me and said to me, ‘This is policing in America. It’s always 20 other problems that have gone neglected, led to this, and there’s no place to turn, and there’s no one to fix it.’”
Cops are expected to be superhuman, and the fact is, in places like these, good policing is rare. This is not just because so many cops are mediocre at best, but because good policing is a superhuman feat. If the force hired only good cops, purified of “implicit bias,” there would not be enough officers to go around. Mediocre cops will always exist (even if they can be improved), and mediocre cops will shoot people in unjust circumstances.
A common rebuttal is that too much security suppresses freedom. This is true. But a lack of security breeds violence, and this violence breeds a communal distrust which too suppresses freedom. As Bobby Kennedy remarked to the Cleveland City Club in 1968, when our communities are plagued by crime, “we learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear–only a common desire to retreat from each other–only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force.” Trust is necessary for communities to thrive, so as long as crime exists we need cops, and where there are cops, people will die. We just have to accept that casualties are the cost of freedom.
In this country, it should not be a controversial statement to say that even cops are human, and people deserve to be considered innocent under the law until proven guilty. Sterling may or may not have been killed by a racist cop. There is not enough evidence either way. We should be able to sympathize with those killed at the hands of the police and with those police at the same time.
It would be overly simplistic to say that the cops just shouldn’t be so eager to use lethal force when you consider how difficult it is to be a cop and how high our expectations of them are. Yes, there are instances in which cops have clearly used excessive force on a suspect–black and white–but there are many, many more where the situation is much more complicated, and the cop is forced to make a difficult split second decision. The real world is hard… whoever you are.
Not only the individual cases that have inspired K/C/BLM, but even the wider data demonstrate the complete lack of substance in their claims of systematically racist police brutality. Sure, there are many racist cops, but solving police brutality requires understanding it as a diminishable yet inevitable reality that is not racial in nature. Every American can be affected by the abuse of state violence, and it is dangerous to pretend that making the issue solely racial will help.
Even if cops aren’t discriminating against people of color on an overall basis, there is much evidence that they can improve across the board. Leovy argues that improved clearance rates will not only decrease crime overall, but also diminish discrepancies in use of force against people of color. This will require greater investment in police detectives and in building better relationships between hurting communities and their police forces.
Journalist and media entrepreneur Kmele Foster has said many times that he believes the fact that police investigate their own killings is a disgrace, and proposes the process use independent investigators. There is also much evidence that body cameras on police and teaching them de-escalation tactics will also decrease the number of killings. There are also many other improvements the police can make, all of which have nothing to do with race.
Yet improvement on the part of the cops alone will not reduce the levels of crime in poor communities of color, and high levels of crime will continue to breed regrettable altercations between civilians and police. Left-leaning readers may object, wishing for me to emphasize that the history of institutional racism in America–through Jim Crow, the G.I. Bill, redlining, blockbusting, the War on Drugs, and so on–has caused these outcomes.
It’s true that these historical patterns have, as Leovy has shown, made some patterns of crime in poor communities necessary for survival. But the fact that any impoverished community in the world experiences similar criminal patterns shows that this may not be so much a consequence of ongoing racism. We must look beyond the original cause of these patterns at what cultural traits allow them to persist.
Many, like Colin Kaepernick, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Black Lives Matter would probably object to this point. They are apt to call my view on killings by police “naive.” Regarding Mike Brown, journalist Thomas Chatterton Williams summarized Coates’ position: “it didn’t matter what the 18-year-old had or hadn’t done, because he wasn’t a moral agent in the first place.” For people like Coates, Brown and Sterling were “casualties of a centuries-old system of oppression that decided [their] fate before [their] parents’ parents had even met.” Even if Sterling or Brown’s killers didn’t seem to act out of hatred, racism has infected the America institution and psyche so deeply that any racial discrepancy must be a symptom of the same disease.
This sort of deep cynicism over race seems to be catching on lately. Terms like “white supremacy” are constantly tossed around and necessitates a Coates-like attitude that its “vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.” Williams objects: the “essential premise” of these claims, he writes, is that “blacks in America live entirely conditional lives.” He continues: “it’s not just black kids in tough neighbourhoods who are hapless automatons. In Coates’s view, no one has agency.”
For Coates, any disparities between white and black people have nothing to do with individual actors. Williams, on the other hand, believes this view leaves no room for morally fallible individuals. According to Coates’ logic, such people must be seen as “avatars of white supremacy.” And, what’s worse, everyone must be seen as “‘cultural dopes’” who “‘simply reproduce society without being aware of it.’ … Forty million people must be seen as permanent victims.” It’s frightening this view is so widespread among good-intentioned people.
The plight of the cultural dope is that no achievement can be attributed to hard work, good ideas, or talent. As Glenn Loury, a Brown University economist, has put it in one of his conversations with McWhorter, “if indeed I adopt this deterministic worldview in which the negative cultural expressions are themselves the necessary consequence of oppression, then it would appear to follow that the positive cultural expressions are also a necessary consequence of oppression. If I can’t take responsibility for my failures, how is it that I get to take responsibility for my successes?”
According to Coates’ logic, Kaepernick’s athletic ability and his own authorial success can be explained by nothing but their oppression. I guess we could all be writing with Coates’ ripe pith or be throwing a football with Kaepernick’s speed and accuracy, if only we were just oppressed like them. This is, of course, absurd: Coates’ and Kaepernick’s abilities are not a consequence of their oppression–whatever that oppression may have been for them as individuals. Positive cultural expressions, then, are only distinguishable in a world in which racism is a cause attributable to individuals, not an outcome associated with social systems.
The huge wealth gap between white and black people, despite the common claim, also does not make negligible the agency of a poor black people. Duke University economist Sandy Darity has studied racial wealth gaps, and his conclusions are stark. According to Darity, “for families in which the lead earner has a college degree, the average white family has $180,500 in wealth. The average black family? $23,400.” As Ezra Klein of Vox remarked, “that’s a difference of almost $160,000–$160,000 that could be used to send a kid to college, get through an illness, start a small business, or make a down payment on a home that builds wealth for the next generation, too.”
As a solution, Darity proposes something he calls “baby bonds,” a trust fund endowed to infants and graduated on the basis of the wealth of the child’s family. Darity calculates this would cost 80 billion dollars per year. Even though Darity believes his proposal is realistic, 80 billion dollars per year is a lot of money that no one should count on–and that’s not just because of “white fragility.”
The common claim is that black people’s general lack of wealth makes surmounting their situation (via starting a business or attendance at elite universities) impossible. However, as McWhorter emphasizes, a lack of wealth is no reason a child of color “can’t present a tippy-tippy-top dossier to college.” The first argument is that they can’t afford the test-prep courses to do well on standardized tests. However, research on the effects of test-prep courses on score improvements show that test-prep often has little effect on score gains. Rather, good standardized test scores have been shown to be dependent on years of good schooling, and the tests are necessary in college admissions to account for grade inflation in GPAs.
The other argument is that students of color have less access to good schooling than whites. The problem with this claim has to do with the data it is based upon. “Each year, [generally about 70 percent of] parents responding to the Phi Delta Kappan poll report high levels of satisfaction with their kids’ education,” writes UMass Lowell education professor Jack Schneider in The Atlantic. “When asked to rate the nation’s schools, however, [roughly 70 percent of] respondents are far less sanguine.” The public is much more familiar with their local schools on a holistic level, but when it comes to public schools across the nation, they have to rely on standardized-test scores. “But test scores,” Schneider emphasizes, “tend to indicate more about students’ backgrounds than about the schools they attend.” The perception that poor students of color don’t have access to good schooling is ultimately a judgement based on the fact that they are poor and not on the quality of their schools.
What K/C/BLM refuse to admit is that, ultimately, the culture in poor communities of color is unproductive towards the ends everyone would like to see and needs to be changed in order to meet ends. Yet somehow, using this word “culture” to describe negative social traits is blaming the victim. It has become a sort of trope in recent years to bemoan “cultural genocide,” so the general reaction is to treat every culture like it’s good and complete. “Who are we to judge?” But, as Coleman Hughes notes in his Quillette article, “The Racism Treadmill,” this concern is applied selectively. As he writes,
“Time magazine has run an article entitled ‘Rape Culture is Real’; The Atlantic has run articles entitled ‘America’s Gun-Culture Problem,’ and ‘What Critics Don’t Understand About Gun Culture’; ‘Consumer Culture’ is the subject of countless books and scholarly articles, and the name of a course at Cornell University. We have no problem discussing potentially negative cultural factors when the culture in question can be attributed to men, whites, or capitalism. It is only when one suggests that blacks too have cultural problems that such objections are pulled out of the ether.”
Cultures can be improved, and the only way to do so is to discuss their flaws.
The negative social expressions of many low-income communities of color, and the cause of their plight, goes deeper than crime and violence alone. As then-Senator Barack Obama told the 2004 Democratic National Convention, “go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.”
A study by Darity shows that the social stigma among youth of color that doing well in school is for white people might not be so explicit. However, the unique and expected outcome of this stigma is widely prevalent. This is demonstrated by an empirical study of the phenomenon by Fryer, which shows that in high schools, the average student of color begins to lose friends once their GPA reaches 3.5. Worse, the effect is “more pronounced in schools with more interracial contact,” and especially salient among low-income families. With such a visible stigma, of course students of color aren’t going to do well in school.
The consequence of such large numbers of poor people of color feeling alienated by school means that they will fail to put in the work required to “present a tippy-tippy-top dossier to college.” This may be the origin of the perception that they don’t have access to good schools. This also means that many may even fail to graduate at all; and for many, working a minimum wage job with the hopes of working their way up the ladder will be less tempting than drug-dealing and crime. Even if selling drugs doesn’t get you rich, it certainly keeps the wolf from the door.
Limiting the number of interactions between people of color and police might not be as simple as throwing money at public schools and de-emphasizing the use of standardized test scores in college admissions, or even improving Affirmative Action policies. If poor students of color are going to escape their situation, waiting for baby bonds won’t be enough.
One way or another, they are going to have to be taught that doing well in school matters, and they are going to have to be trained to escape their socialization. Only then will killings by police in these communities begin to decrease. As Loury has said, “I can’t help the hand that I was dealt. The issue is how I’m going to play the hand.” Maybe many people of color don’t have much wealth. Maybe they live in socially destructive communities. But that doesn’t mean they can’t try hard in school or start a business. They can still get a job, move up the ladder, and begin to create wealth. They might need training to do so–that is a fair discussion–but it’s demeaning to pretend that present disparities necessitate a continued waste of human capital, or that cash reparations are going to fix these cultural problems.
Despite real racial wealth disparities, unless poor people of color are going to be victims forever until their salvation is handed to them, there might be very little holding them back. It’s not the racist police, and it’s not the racist teachers either (although I’ll grant there may be many of both). The fact is that police brutality is a complex but tangible phenomenon, traceable to everything from mediocre policing, to low communal trust to negative social expressions in children and adults. But the data about how to fix it exists.
Cynically talking about “white supremacy” and bemoaning white pushback will not help. To loosely paraphrase Loury’s 2015 Brown University panel “On the Meaning of Mike Brown,” there are racist cops roaming the street. This is a national disgrace, but this alone is not the scourge of communities of color. Institutional racism might be real, and sure, slavery was America’s Original Sin, but the turn of the 21st century is scattered with human refuse both black and white, and it is about time to get boots on the ground to deal with it.
Considering his protest’s ambiguity and the cynical response to his inevitable fall, Kaepernick did not help the national discourse. Police brutality is not a racial issue–as has been shown supra–and it would be a loose extrapolation to say he’s helped anyone. But, depending on the spheres you move through, police brutality may be a racial issue and Kaepernick may have been protesting a racial issue. In the spheres which believe that it is and he was, slavery and white supremacy are America’s Original Sin, and they “will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.” In these same spheres, Kaepernick’s plight is a symptom of white fragility, the President is a white nationalist, and the NFL is racist.
To accuse the NFL or its fans of “white fragility” or even racism, vis-à-vis Kaepernick, is no argument. America has come a long way since slavery and Jim Crow. Racism certainly still exists, but the accusation of racism is now something the average white American fears. Racism is not holding the vast majority of people of color back.
Without any overt expressions of racism to fight, the War on Racism’s next logical concern “is with the underlying biases that bolster the racism that remains,” McWhorter writes in The Atlantic. “It seeks, as a way forward, a society not only without racist structures, but without racist thought.” The problem is that white privilege and implicit bias are not the same thing as racism. It also won’t help either that it doesn’t look like anti-bias trainings work. Anti-racism has become, as McWhorter points out (and as several others have argued here, here and here), something like a new religion. As McWhorter writes,
“The idea that whites are permanently stained by their white privilege, gaining moral absolution only by eternally attesting to it, is [third-wave anti-racism’s] version of original sin. The idea of a someday when America will ‘come to terms with race’ is as vaguely specified a guidepost as Judgment Day. Explorations as to whether an opinion is ‘problematic’ are equivalent to explorations of that which may be blasphemous. The social mauling of the person with ‘problematic’ thoughts parallels the excommunication of the heretic. What is called ‘virtue signaling,’ then, channels the impulse that might lead a Christian to an aggressive display of her faith in Jesus. There is even a certain Church Lady air to much of the patrolling on race these days, an almost performative joy in dog-piling on the transgressor, which under a religious analysis is perfectly predictable.”
Kaepernick’s protest, then, was less an act of civil disobedience than a performance of religiosity.
Colin Kaepernick, however, is not the problem. Nor is Ta-Nehisi Coates or Ava DuVernay or BLM or any other name you can draw up who espouses a similar racial cynicism. These people are all symptoms of a larger problem–a new kind of argument America is having with itself. And it’s not a sincere disagreement. We are stuck in a meta-argument. We argue over labels and words. We argue and protest over the consequences of our own actions, over pseudo-events.
As Joshua Rothman writes in The New Yorker, a pseudo-event “is any happening that exists primarily so that it can be reported upon and debated.” A news outlet drawing an angry reaction out of a government official (such as CNN’s Jim Acosta’s altercations with the President) or a lousy answer out of a candidate (Sarah Palin’s 2008 Katie Couric interview, which even has its own Wikipedia page, probably exemplifies this) are also pseudo-events, as were the recent Covington Kids controversy, the Ralph Northam blackface controversy, and the Jussie Smollett affair (if we are to believe it was a fabrication).
In this sense, Kaepernick’s protest was a pseudo-event. Pseudo-events, however, have little to no bearing on reality, yet they multiply to the point at which they “make up the preponderance of what we call political life.” A concern with how and where we put boots on the ground is mutually exclusive of a concern with pseudo-events.
Along these lines, it seems ever more clear that the present stage of the War on Racism’s preoccupation with attitudes is bringing us towards that world in which pseudo-events dominate every conversation. If the goal is changing hearts, about interrogating white America’s soul, pseudo-reality must be our reality. It doesn’t matter what anyone does. It doesn’t matter whether a politician has taken tangible steps to help poor people of color if he somehow sins. What really matters is complete moral purity.
Everyone must be interrogated. If their skin is too white, they have to attest to their privilege. They have to accept Social Justice; they have to accept God. If America having an honest conversation about race (which any good anti-racist would assure you we’ve never really done–despite how hard it is to avoid the topic if one tried) is the equivalent to Judgement Day, the direction the anti-racists are bringing us, it’s not hard to imagine a full-on race war will be our fate. The only way to avoid this fate is to stop making such a big deal out of pseudo-events altogether. Yet, day by day, such a future becomes less and less attainable.
This phenomenon reminds me of a story about a Russian journalist who was studied by psychologists many years ago and written about by Joshua Foer in his book Moonwalking with Einstein. As Foer writes, “he claimed… to be able to abolish pain with his images: ‘Let’s say I’m going to the dentist… I sit there and when the pain starts I feel it… it’s a tiny, orange-red thread. I’m upset because I know that if this keeps up the thread will widen until it turns into a dense mass… So I cut the thread, make it smaller and smaller, until it’s just a tiny point. And the pain disappears.’” Unlike the Russian journalist, instead of cutting the orange-red thread–ignoring our hollow political culture and focusing on real events–we are allowing the tiny thread to unwind, faster and faster, criss-crossing over and over itself, tying into a huge impossible knot into which everything real and meaningful is caught and forever intertwined.
This article, too, is reacting to a pseudo-event, so it’s hard to see how it’s helping. The painful irony is that accepting the embeddedness of irony in our current culture is the only way to be sincere about our reality. Opinions are really what we go to the news for nowadays. This is clear given the present popularity of news-comedy. With a president who does everything with bolstering his own reputation as the blatant number one priority, the news is usually about watching a man watching himself be watched. It’s rare for political news to be clean of multiple layers of watching. Every political opinion is tied into and captured by this ironic thread-ball. It’s irony all the way down, it seems. Maybe this is just the cost of technological progress. But this means that breaking through our knotted-ball political culture requires adding to it oneself. We all will have to cut it together.
So I pile onto Carton simply because I have to join in the “conversation” somewhere–and her article is representative of larger political phenomena–not because of any specific disagreement I have with her (i.e. it’s nothing personal). The crux of the problem with Carton’s article is that it not only supports a narrative that presumes falsehoods to be true, but that it buttresses a political narrative turned religious narrative.
In her article, Carton writes how, “with everything from pride flags in shop windows to McDonald’s rainbow french fry containers, companies compete for who can be the most ‘woke.’” It’s notable that woke is in quotation marks. Apparently, “What they’re selling us is nothing more than the idea of solidarity.” Apparently, real anti-racism is selling real solidarity. Apparently, attesting to one’s faith is the same thing as solidarity.
Like McWhorter, I wonder, “is there any evidence that today’s religious crusade is making any significant changes in Americans’ deepest thoughts, or ever could?” And is there any evidence that this is even necessary? The longtime success of so many Caribbean and African immigrants–equally familiar with racism–makes this seem dubious. Yet Carton’s maneuvering is understandable given how bad it looks when your wokeness is someone else’s marketing gimmick. It also turns out that recent parodying of the word has resulting in calls by many liberals for it to be “put to sleep.” Still, just because anti-racists won’t label themselves “woke” doesn’t mean they aren’t, and just because McDonald’s is doing it doesn’t mean it’s something different when they do it.
Regardless of what anti-racism is selling, it is selling something. And in a sense, everyone and everything is selling something. As the recent work by economist Robin Hanson and writer-programmer Kevin Simler shows, consumption is about sending signals about who you are or want to be. It’s about acquiring the tools for a “fitness display.” As John Lanchester writes in The New Yorker, “fitness displays ‘can be used to woo mates, of course, but they also serve other purposes like attracting allies or intimidating rivals.’” Similarly, buying into a religion is not just about being good and right, it’s also about attracting allies and intimidating rivals–and maybe even wooing mates. That’s also what a T-shirt reading “Feminist Gangsta” or “Black Lives Matter” does. On a fundamental level, fashion is a way of advertising ourselves. The same goes for the political beliefs we espouse.
Yale University religion professor Kathryn Lofton has argued that material consumption is a kind of religious impulse, a way to strain towards “the Gospel of You.” Kaepernick believed in himself, and buying these Nike sneakers is how I can believe in myself. It seems religious signalling is also a way to grasp towards the Gospel of You. The louder one supports Kaepernick–or any other woke cause–the louder one is supporting themself.
Considering how measly the gains of third-wave anti-racism–like third-wave feminism–have been, it’s easy to wonder how anti-racist brands (i.e. any public anti-racist individual or collective) and anti-racism itself are any different. How was Kaepernick’s anti-racist performance meant to achieve anything more than an increase in his notoriety–and consequently Nike sneaker sales? How was Nike’s encouragement to “believe in something” meant to encourage anything more than a belief in Yourself? How was Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” anything more than a way to increase his fame, let alone advance the national discourse (I mean, any serious person abandoned this idea as unrealistic long ago)? How was the infamous Gillette “Toxic Masculinity” ad anything more than an ironic wink at woke men?
The inclination to compartmentalize wokeness, to divide it into legitimate and not, is nothing more than a way to rationalize its irrationality, to, as McWhorter writes, “let pass certain wrinkles in the fabric as ‘complex’” and hope the subject changes soon. It’s also a way to feel good about that impulse and one’s own ignorance (i.e. the “I haven’t experienced being [fill in the blank] in America so I can’t say what’s best” instinct).
If we can be cheered on for our wokeness, if we can feel comfortable in our ignorance, then the suggestion is that we must be helping the situation because we sure are helping someone. It’s not surprising that some have called identity politics “Reaganomics for Lefties.” Anti-racism is no different than an unbinding faith in small government and “trickle-down economics,” that if we can make the government as small as possible–if we can change enough hearts and all feel good about it–everything will just work out in the end.
Why would we go to anti-racism in the first place? Well, why would anyone go to religion? For community, for meaning, for understanding, for a sense of control. None of these things are rational. As Jonathan Haidt has argued in The Righteous Mind, we each are the rider of an elephant, “and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” Intuition, the religious impulse, comes first, rationality second (e.g. the killing of Mike Brown or Alton Sterling is morally disgusting, and therefore must be explained by white supremacy).
“But,” as McWhorter writes, “the black person essentially barred from the polls gains nothing from someone sagely attesting to their white privilege on Twitter and decrying that ‘no one wants to talk about race in this country’ when America is nothing less than obsessed with race week in and week out.” Belief may be important, but it can only go so far, and a belief in our own ignorance alone is what we are increasingly stuck with.
This is not to say that faith is anathema, or that we’d be better off if social activism stopped altogether. However, to hold a fervent dedication to moral purity in the omnipresent threat of white supremacy–like the Devil, always fighting to invade our minds–and a faith that proving one’s fidelity to their racial ignorance (because the impossibility of them revealing their soul somehow reflects their immutable sin, despite any tangible actions they may take) will somehow change reality is to wallow in the mud.
Reality is complex, but the evidence does exist about how to change it for the better. What we need is not a faith in ignorance in the face of complexity, but a faith that searching out and incorporating complexity into our understanding is how to help people. What we need is a fervently dedicated activism whose primary concern is policy and cares about helping poor people more than feeling good about doing it.
Anti-racists can and should fight against the War on Drugs and voter suppression, for contraceptives for poor women, improved schooling methods, such as a universal phonics-based reading instruction and programs to foster grit in students, for job training programs for poor men and women of color, better healthcare in poor communities, and even smarter policing. As McWhorter writes, progressives “should not do less; they should do better.” Progress is made with laws, with real political power; not with T-shirts or slogans, and not with “performances of solidarity.” In the end, what will actually help people is beyond the boundaries of identity. Progress is possible. Now it’s about time to get to work.